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The cake really is a lie…at least for Flickr users.

This article was originally published on May 21, 2013.

I hate to use a cliché, but you really can’t have your cake and eat it too.

I logged in to Flickr yesterday rather innocently – I was updating some information on my Facebook profile and couldn’t remember exactly when I moved out of my first apartment in Indianapolis, many moons ago. I opened a new tab in my browser, navigated to Flickr, and – holy crap! A new site design! And what’s this about Pro accounts? I have a Pro account and have for awhile now (it was cheap enough to justify the annual $25, and it was a great way to backup all my photos), so I clicked the little alert to see what had changed.

I figured that this was something that had been rolled out a few weeks ago, and I was just behind the curve. Turns out that no, I had walked smack into the middle of a huge user fallout only hours after Flickr had made their new design and account upgrades public.

Now, I have been around on social networking sites for awhile – I’ve been through at least three major Facebook upgrades, and before Mark Zuckerburg even started that site, I was using LiveJournal very actively (some might even say obsessively). Every time that a change was made to these social networking sites, people inevitably lost their minds. There would be cries of “I’m leaving and never coming back!” and “So this is how you treat your paying users?!” and “Why didn’t you let me opt-out?!” and on and on. Of course, once the brouhaha had passed, things went back to normal and users generally found that it wasn’t actually all that hard to adapt to a new environment on their favorite website(s).

What I find absolutely fascinating is that these changes to Flickr – both the UI changes and the major overhaul of the paid options – were long overdue. We as users on the Internet have become so accustomed to getting what we want that we generally feel very entitled to things. No services provider has any obligation to notify their users of a UI change. Likewise, there is no obligation to provide an “opt-out”. I mean, really. When did we become so needy? Did people inch to the brink of hysteria any time their favorite print magazine or newspaper made changes to the logo, the layout, or the position of the table of contents? In the 80s, did the publishers of Time and Newsweek and the Washington Post find themselves constantly inundated with angry letters from subscribers, demanding to be given the option to op-out of design and layout changes and threatening to cancel their subscriptions if their demands were not met?

Adapting is part of life. If you want everything to be exactly the same all the time, get off the Internet and move somewhere really boring, like North Dakota. Otherwise, perhaps its time that the high-maintenance babies of the Internet accept that things will change, and you either roll with it or you don’t – but regardless of your decision, it might be worth keeping your mouth shut for once.

Now that my social commentary is out of the way, let’s look at what Flickr’s changes are actually about.

R.I.P. Pro Accounts

Pro accounts are officially dead. This is sad for Pro users, but completely anticipated in my personal opinion. You may be wondering what a Pro account actually gave users for their hard-earned annual $25…

  • No ads - This is a little humorous to me. It’s extremely easy to eradicate ads from your browsing experience. AdBlock+ is available for Chrome and Firefox, it’s free, and combined with the Element Hiding Helper addon, it’s extremely effective.
  • Unlimited bandwidth and storage - Instead of going by storage used, Flickr used to go by bandwidth consumed. Free users were allowed to upload 300MB per month, and only two videos, at a maximum of 90 seconds long and only 150MB per video.
  • Full-resolution photos - Free users were only able to view and download resized and compressed versions of their photos. Pro users could access the original, full-resolution copy of each image, which made Flickr a very inexpensive way to archive a huge quantity of high-resolution photos.
  • Access to more images - Flickr Pro users could view all their photos, whereas free users were only able to see their 200 most recent photos.
  • Pool membership max increased - Pro users could join up to 60 photo pools (communities where you can share your photos with others in the pool, view their photos, and post in the forums). Free users were limited to ten pools.

There are a few other benefits, but you get the idea. The limits on pool membership and number of accessible images was less about “we can’t afford to give you this” and more about “we want compelling reasons for you to spend money on a Pro account”. The bandwidth and storage limits, however, were very cost-oriented. Storage is a lot cheaper than it used to be, and there’s a lot more of it, but that doesn’t make it free. All told, $25 a year for unlimited photo storage is an excellent deal, especially if you’re a professional (or dedicated enthusiast).

It was just too good of a deal for 2013. Times have changed quite a bit since Flickr was introduced nine years ago, in 2004. Looking at DPReview’s archive of camera models from that year1), your average affordable consumer point-and-shoot camera could shoot images anywhere from four to seven megapixels. According to this handy calculator, that’s anywhere from one two two megabytes per photo. Compare that to today’s hardware, where $150 can get you a 16MP camera that takes photos around 3.5MB per image. It doesn’t seem like a huge increase, but it does add up when you consider that there are people uploading thousands and thousands of photos every month.

Not only that, but DSLRs have become considerably more affordable, and more hobbyists are investing in quality camera equipment – which means they’re interested in uploading much larger images to sites like Flickr. Couple that with the fact that average broadband Internet connections have exponentially increased in both upload and download speeds, and users can now upload a massive quantity of huge photos very quickly. No longer can $25 per user sustain the bandwidth and storage usage that Flickr is seeing.

Instead of archaic limits for free users, everyone gets a flat terabyte of photo storage and no limits on viewing old photos or downloading high-resolution copies of images. Overall, this is a major upgrade for many Flickr account holders.

The Two Terabyte Upgrade

It absolutely makes sense that Flickr needed to make a change. Their business model was, I’m almost certain, costing them a lot of money. It may not have been losses in the millions or billions, but the powers that be knew that they needed to make some changes in order to stay competitive and profitable. A terabyte of storage is more than enough for most users. For the very small percentage of users who legitimately need more storage, a $500-per-year option is available to add another terabyte of storage.

I’ll grant that Flickr should make some other more affordable plans available, but it turns out that $500 for a terabyte of cloud storage is actually a pretty good deal. Box offers a terabyte storage upgrade for $540 a year, with three user accounts at $15 per month per user. Dropbox has no terabyte option, but 500GB storage is $500 a year. SkyDrive OneDrive has no terabyte option either, but the 100GB option is $50 a year – which would theoretically be $500/year for a terabyte. Google Drive is even more expensive, at $600 a year for a terabyte. Once you step back and look at the competition, Flickr’s pricing is on par with other services.

The Ad-Free Upgrade

If you want to go ad-free and are morally opposed to using an ad blocker in your browser, you can pay $50 a year for an ad-free experience. This option is definitely a total ripoff. It’s easy to remove ads for free, and $50 is a hefty price tag to “legitimately” remove ads from Flickr. That’s all I really have to say about that one.

Interface Changes – Always A Challenge

Even bigger than the account changes are the UI changes. Flickr’s design was old and stale – the layout was fixed-width with an XGA (1024×768) viewport in mind. This was fine in the mid-2000s, when most laptops and many desktops used XGA displays. Today, every laptop on the market is widescreen, and even the most inexpensive models are equipped with a WSXGA (1280×800) display. If you’re still designing your websites with a 1024-pixel maximum width in mind, you’re stuck in 2002. It’s time to update.

The new interface puts your photos front-and-center. Instead of a small image in the corner of the page that you have to click through to see a larger version, you can now see large, beautiful photos as the focal point of any user on the site. Other content is still there – EXIF data, comments, tagging, and sharing, but the star of the show is your photos.

In the past, when social sites were implementing major UI overhauls, there was usually a fairly lengthy beta rollout, where users could choose to try the new interface before it went live to the entire site. There would inevitably be a lot of bitching about the new interface, but as we have seen time and again with Facebook’s changes, people generally suck it up and get used to it.

A beta rollout of major UI changes can allow a services provider to work out bugs and issues that their private testers may not have discovered. Flickr’s lack of a public beta means that there will probably be more bugs in the interface, but if they handle those quickly and efficiently, it shouldn’t be too painful a transition.

In the meantime, I can’t help but laugh at how very angry some of Flickr’s users are over these changes.