Dark Day for Digital Photo Services: PicMe, BubbleShare, Riya Fade to Black

In an online photo mini-apocalypse, three Web 2.0-era photo sharing and management services—BubbleShare, Riya, and PicMe—announced late this week that they’re shutting down operations.

The closings aren’t entirely coincidental. Greg Raiz of Raizlabs, the Cambridge, MA-based software development house that built PicMe, says he accelerated plans to mothball and hopefully sell the application after he learned about the other shutdowns. “We had seen a number of other photo companies close shop and felt that if someone was ‘shopping’ for technology we should toss our hat in the ring now while the opportunity was hot,” Raiz says.

But the bigger picture, so to speak, may be that a few big players—names like Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket, and Google (with its Picasa application)—have sucked all the oxygen out of the photo management and photo sharing market. “Ultimately it’s very difficult to be in the consumer photo space,” says Raiz. “Google, Flickr, and Facebook essentially set the bar and give away their services for free or close to free. While we still feel certain aspects of our solution are better we can’t compete in a feature war and we can’t out-market them.”

I reviewed PicMe way back in my very first World Wide Wade column in April 2008. The cool, unique thing about the downloadable desktop program is that it shows your digital photos in 3-D stacks, with one stack for each folder on your hard drive. It lets you flip quickly through the photos in each stack, as if you were riffling through a pile of physical photo prints. To quote myself, “It’s a very nice way to browse through a big photo collection, and is a bit reminiscent of other recent interface innovations such as the Cover Flow feature on iPods and iPhones.” The program also offers drag-and-drop photo sharing: to e-mail or post a photo (or a whole stack of them) you can simply drag them onto the right icon in your contact list.

PicMe gained a respectable following through word of mouth, but Raiz was never able to line up the right partner to help spread PicMe more broadly. “As a small company we couldn’t get a desktop application licensed or distributed,” he says. “We talked to all the large desktop software players: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Kodak, Adobe, HP, et cetera, and they just were not interested. Or rather they were interested but not enough.”

At the same time, Raiz says, the company’s focus was shifting toward mobile app development, especially on the iPhone. Raizlabs did key development work on the Runkeeper app from Boston-based FitnessKeeper, for example. Even before Raiz decided to cease support for PicMe, “we had already decided internally that for now we wanted to spend our time working on Mobile apps,” he says. The company might build a mobile photo application at some point in the future, he adds.

“We’ve seen so much more success on the mobile side in just a year that we’d rather focus on what works,” Raiz says. “There are still companies trying to make a play for the consumer desktop such as ILovePhotos so we know it’s a valid opportunity, it’s just a really, really hard one to monetize.”

Both BubbleShare and Riya—which I reviewed in two articles for Technology Review‘s website in March 2006—were largely moribund, so the news of their shutdowns does not come as a huge surprise. BubbleShare’s big innovation was an easy way to record an audio clip to go along with each photo you uploaded, then assemble the photos into a narrated slide show. The Toronto startup behind BubbleShare was purchased by Canadian media firm Kaboose in 2007; the BubbleShare technology became part of Disney Online when that company acquired some of Kaboose’s assets this April. Disney posted a note yesterday on the BubbleShare website saying that the service will close down as of November 15. All photos stored on the site will be erased.

Riya, based in San Mateo, CA, was probably a bit better known than BubbleShare, at least among the digerati, for its face recognition capabilities. After a bit of training, the site’s software can identify the faces of people who show up in multiple photos, offering a nice way to organize family albums. Riya founder Munjal Shah sent an e-mail to users this morning (reproduced at TechCrunch) explaining that similar capabilities are now available from Picasa and Apple’s iPhoto software, and that Riya will shut down as of August 21. In any case, Shah and the rest of the team behind Riya had long since shifted their efforts to Like.com, a shopping site based on similar color and pattern matching technology.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Dark Day for Digital Photo Services: PicMe, BubbleShare, Riya Fade to Black”

  1. Jill Koppel says:

    What now? I started using Bubbleshare this year for quickly compiled web-ready slide shows for our learning centre wiki. Students and teachers especially love the Bubble slider: you don’t even have to click play to view the scrolling images (sideways). How can I replace it? Any recommendations?

  2. Thanks Wade for this commentary.. interesting that some of the best tools go under, through lack of eyeballs.

    Jill you’ve seen Alan Levine’s 50 ways to tell a story, haven’t you?

    Yes bubbleshare was the #1

    The question is how much longer will the others last. A strange market where you give everything away for free.. so you need *a lot* of customers to succeed.

    best regards, michael

  3. Sucks about the bubbleshare site, but there are over 20 alternatives to them, just go with a big site and always back up important photos.