Last week at the Google I/O developer conference, Google announced a raft of forthcoming additions to its Google Photos service. Since Google Photos runs on iOS and in any web browser, it’s a serious photo-storage option for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users—and in many ways, it’s way ahead of Apple’s Photos apps and iCloud Photo Library service.

Then again, WWDC—Apple’s own developer conference—is in just two weeks. It’s an opportunity for Apple to declare where it’s taking Photos and iCloud Photo Library next. In the meantime, though, it’s worth pointing out where Google Photos is beating Apple’s offerings, and where Apple’s ahead—and how WWDC could be poised to change both sides of the equation.

Apple’s advantages


I’ve spent an awful lot of time with Photos and iCloud Photo Library. You could say that I wrote the book on it, because I have. Spending that much time up close with any product makes you appreciate its features and deeply understand its flaws.

Photos and iCloud Photo Library seem to be knocked reflexively by Internet commentators and critics alike, which is unfortunate—it’s actually a pretty impressive collection of features that work quite well. Keep in mind that iCloud Photo Library and the overhauled Photos app for Mac are only a couple of years old, and that the machine-learning features that allow Photos to let you search for all your photos of cats or zebras was only introduced last fall. These are, in some ways, Apple’s baby steps with a new product.

Apple’s Photo offering has a few big advantages advantages over Google Photos. If you’re a Mac user who prefers native apps to web apps, for example, Apple has a huge advantage—Photos is a real Mac application, while Google Photos runs entirely inside your web browser.

There’s also the matter of security. With Google Photos, your entire photo library is available on Google’s servers, to be processed and analyzed in whatever way Google sees fit. In contrast, images in iCloud Photo Library are encrypted and Apple can’t see them when they’re off your device. There are a lot of advantages to Google’s approach, which I’ll get to shortly, but if you’re someone who feels uneasy about giving Google access to your personal data, Google’s approach will be a huge turn-off.

Finally, iCloud Photo Library has an advantage on iOS that’s tied in to Apple’s status as the owner of the operating system. The Photos app can sync to iCloud Photo Library automatically, but third-party apps like Google Photos don’t have unlimited power to remain running in the background. Google Photos does its best to work around these limitations, but in my experience I can always count on my iCloud Photo Library to be properly synced with the latest changes in my library; with Google Photos, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.

Google’s advantages

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Though Google’s reliance on analyzing your photos in the cloud is a drawback if you’re concerned about privacy, it’s got a lot of advantages. First among them, your photos need only to be analyzed once—and using Google’s powerful server hardware. Apple’s approach with Photos requires that every image be scanned for potential keyword matches on your device—which takes time and uses processor power, as many people discovered when they upgraded to iOS 10 or macOS Sierra last fall. What’s worse, the machine-learned keywords don’t sync via iCloud, so every device you use has to re-scan your entire library—a huge waste of time.

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