For well over five years, Google Photos has been one of the easiest recommendations in tech. It’s feature-filled, ubiquitous, whip-smart, easy to use, and, most importantly, has let you store infinite photos at “high-quality” resolution—a polite way of saying “compressed”—without charging you a dime. No longer. The Google Photos gravy train will leave the station next summer, the company announced earlier today. Once you go over 15 gigabytes, you’re going to have to pay up.
It’s important to be clear about what exactly is changing here. All Google accounts come with 15 GB of free storage, which you eat up with Gmail messages and attachments, Google Drive files, and Google Photos uploaded at their original size. All of that still applies. But you’ve had an option to this point to let Google resize your photos to a 16-megapixel maximum when you upload them. Those photos, as well as videos that top out at 1080p resolution, have not counted against that 15-GB cap. As of June 1, 2021, new uploads of any size will.
The good news: This means your existing “high-quality” photos and videos won’t apply to the 15-GB limit, nor will any that you upload through next May. In a blog post announcing the change, Google Photos vice president Shimrit Ben-Yair said that 80 percent of users should stay under their quota for roughly three years before they hit that limit, although obviously your mileage will vary. (High-quality photos uploaded from Pixel phones will remain exempt.)
“Since so many of you rely on Google Photos as the home of your life’s memories, we believe it’s important that it’s not just a great product, but that it is able to serve you over the long haul,” Google Photos product lead David Lieb wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “To ensure this is possible not just now, but for the long term, we’ve decided to align the primary cost of providing the service (storage of your content) with the primary value users enjoy (having a universally accessible and useful record of your life).”
Better to finally make people pay, in other words, than to disappear the service altogether.
As former Dropbox Carousel users can attest, it’s hard to bounce back from losing a cloud storage provider. And Google hasn’t been shy in the past about killing off beloved resources. (RIP Google Reader, long live RSS.) And charging users directly for Google Photos also seems preferable to monetizing it through advertising, which remains off the table, according to Lieb.
Still, it’ll be an unwelcome transition for the many, many people who have come to rely solely on Google Photos as their memory repository. Once you do go over, expanded storage plans start at $20 per year for 100 GB, and go all the way up to $50 per month for 10 terabytes. Google has introduced a tool to estimate how long your storage will last, based on your current rate of uploads, and will next year will start making it easier to find uploads you might want to delete: blurry or dark photos, say, or long videos.
And while it’s better to pay for Google Photos than not have Google Photos at all, it’s also true that a major reason so many people use the service in the first place is that the free, unlimited pricing it was built on helped squeeze out smaller competitors along the way. Google may have taken a loss on Google Photos to this point, but all in the service of building a captive audience. Apple’s monthly iCloud storage plans cost the same as Google’s, for instance, and may be a compelling alternative for iPhone owners were it not for the inconvenience of moving several years’ worth of image and video files from one platform to the other. Amazon Photos offers unlimited, full-resolution photo storage, plus 5 GB video storage, but only for Prime members. Everyone else gets 5 GB for photos and video, and anyone interested in more space should either get Amazon Prime or be willing to pay about $84 per year for 1,000 GB, way more than Google or Apple.
Nothing free lasts forever. That Google would eventually start charging for one of its most popular, data-hungry features—28 billion photos and videos get uploaded to Google Photos each week—may be disappointing, but it’s no surprise. And it’s certainly better than the potential alternatives of losing Google Photos altogether or losing its advertising quarantine. Still, it’s a good reminder that deals that are too good to be true—whether it’s cloud storage or ride-share fees or all-you-can-watch movies—only stick around until the companies behind them either zero out the competition or implode along the way.