Pictures and vision

Okay, I’m going to argue that the futures of Facebook and Google are pretty much totally embedded in these two images:

The first one you know. What you might not know is just how completely central photos are to Facebook’s product, and by extension its whole business. The company’s S1 filing reports that, in the last three months of 2011, users uploaded around 250 million photos every day. For context, around 480 million people used the service on any given day in that span. That’s like… quite a ratio. A whole lot of people sign up for Facebook because they want to see a friend or family member’s photos, and a whole lot of people return to the site to see new ones. (And I mean, really: Does the core Facebook behavior of stalking provide any satisfaction without photos? No, it does not.)

Really, Facebook is the world’s largest photo sharing site — that also happens to be a social network and a login system. In this context, the Instagram acquisition and the new Facebook Camera app make perfect sense; this is Facebook trebling down on photos. The day another service steals the photo throne is the day Facebook’s trajectory starts to bend.

(As an aside, I’d love to know how many photo views happen daily on Facebook. My guess is that the number utterly dwarfs every other metric in the system — other than pageviews, of which it is obviously a subset.)

You might not recognize the second image up above. It was posted on Sebastian Thrun’s Google+ page, and it was taken with a working version of Project Glass out in the wild, or at least in Thrun’s backyard. It’s a POV shot taken hands-free: Thrun’s son Jasper, just as Thrun saw him.

Thrun also demonstrated Glass on Charlie Rose and it’s worth watching the first five minutes there just to see (a) exactly how weird the glasses look, and (b) exactly how wonderful the interaction seems. This isn’t about sharing pictures. This is about sharing your vision.

Now, Google’s big pitch video for Glass is all about utility, with just a dollop of delight at the end, but don’t let that fool you. There is serious delight waiting here. Imagine actors and athletes doing what they do today on Twitter — sharing their adventures from a first-person POV — except doing it with Glass. It’s pretty enticing, and if the glasses look dorky, well, we didn’t expect to find ourselves walking the world staring down into little black boxes, either.

So the titanic showdown between Facebook and Google might not be the News Feed vs. Google+ after all. It might be Facebook Camera vs. Project Glass.

It might, in fact, be pictures vs. vision.

I’m saying it that way for effect, of course. In truth it’s pictures and vision. Facebook users will continue to upload a significant fraction of a billion photos every day. With luck, Google will get something going with Glass. These things can thrive side by side. If Google is truly successful, POV images and video clips will start showing up on Facebook, too. Everything mixes and merges.

But I really do think this is the right way to analyze these two companies.

When you think Facebook, think: photos. And don’t be surprised if you see Facebook do even more to cement this incredible position. For instance, why doesn’t professional photography, like the luminous work over at In Focus, have a home on Facebook right now? Update: It does — though I don’t think this is the end of the story.

And when you think Google, think… well, think long-term. I feel like Facebook is probably an easier place to work than Google these days. Facebook is all huge numbers going up, up, up everyday — everything except the share price, but that will come in time. Google, on the other hand, is Google+ and its undead shambling… but damn, it’s also Project Glass, and those cars that can drive themselves! Google is getting good, really good, at building things that see the world around them and actually understand what they’re seeing.

In this context, Google+ is not the company’s most strategic project. That distinction goes to Glass, to the self-driving cars, and to Google Maps, Street View, and Earth — Google’s model of the real, physical world.

Maybe in twenty years we’ll think of Google primarily as a vision company — augmenting our vision, helping us share it — and, oh wow, did you realize they once, long ago, sold ads? Like Nokia’s first business, selling rubber boots.

Project Glass is an idea burdened by a supremely dorky device but possibly powerful enought to overcome it. Vision isn’t yet central to Google the way that pictures are central to Facebook — but lift your eyes and look out into the middle distance. It might be soon.


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