The response to Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr, generally speaking, has been one of suspicion. And considering Yahoo’s track record on these sorts of things, rightly so. More than anything else in recent years, Yahoo’s become known for gobbling up web properties big and small and doing everything in its power to make sure they don’t thrive. Flickr, which was arguably the web’s most beloved photo-sharing site before Yahoo bought it in 2005 and promptly let it fall into disrepair and disuse, is perhaps the most perfect, painful example of this strange phenomenon.
So what Yahoo did yesterday—rolling out a dramatic redesign of Flickr right on the heels of the Tumblr news—was a little bit shrewd. When, yesterday morning, in a Tumblr post announcing that acquisition, Marissa Mayer promised "not to screw it up," we had every right to be skeptical. So we can see the Flickr redesign as a gesture of good faith, a reason for us to take her at her word on the new purchase. And maybe we should believe her; the new Flickr looks better than ever. Here are three aspects of the new design that are especially smart.
Aside from being a sort of gross metaphor, if you really think about it, thumbnails are a largely inefficient way to browse a collection of photos, especially in an era of increasingly high-res displays. Thankfully, the new Flickr (along with the new Android app, which accompanied the web redesign) largely does away with them.
Instead of the standard grid, with thumbnails buffered by unused white space, the site now uses pretty much every available pixel for displaying photos. Borrowing from the UI from the site’s old Explore section, user pages and search results now show pictures crammed together in a dynamically arranged quilt, a wall of photos stretching from one end of the screen to the other. In this view, landscape and portrait photos are interspersed like so many rectangular puzzle pieces, using up all available real estate. Scroll a little ways down into a set, and save for the thin black navigational bar at the top, your entire screen will be plastered in photography. It looks great.
It also changes photo browsing on a fairly fundamental level. Where before the thumbnail pics were just big enough to be identifiable—useful for scanning and selecting an image, which you’d then enlarge with a click—the new layout shows collections in a way such that each individual picture is just big enough to be enjoyable. That is, what before was a useful overview of images in a set is now a way to browse through them all, relatively comfortably, without diving in to see each individually.
It’s not just that Flickr got rid of much of its white space with the new tightly packed tile UI. It hid and got rid of navigational chrome, text, links, and metadata throughout, as well. As Adam Canah, the Yahoo senior VP who showed off the redesign at yesterday’s NYC event noted, "Flickr had become about words, little images, and blue links…Flickr really was not about the photo anymore." This design rights that.
When looking at those dynamic walls of photos, only a small text attribution is overlaid in the bottom left corner of each, keeping the focus on the photo. Clicking an individual image reveals a similar visual focus. Here, the picture itself gets prime placement, with all the title, description, and metadata relegated beneath, where you have to scroll down to see it. To serious photographers who referenced this stuff all the time, this might be an inconvenience. But the new Flickr isn’t as geared toward the serious photographer as the old one was. It’s geared towards a slightly wider audience—one now accustomed to the pure visual pleasures of Instagram and the like.
Other new features show this same commitment to a photo-first experience. At any point when browsing an image, you can jump into a slick, full screen Ken Burns-style slideshow of the set it’s in. Since you don’t have to worry about opening some processor-choking app (looking at you, iPhoto) or diving into a different section of the site to do it, the new slideshow feature is a remarkably fast and easy way to cycle through shots, hands free, while you’re leaning back in your chair. It’s quick enough that it becomes not just a tool for showing your photographs off to others, but for looking at other users’ sets and collections too.
One of the big, screaming, "hey look we’re taking this seriously!" features of the new Flickr isn’t necessarily a feature at all. It’s the simple fact that Yahoo’s giving users a terabyte of storage for their photos. That’s enough space for 537,731 photos from your smartphone, or some 250,000 from your fancy pants DSLR (thanks to the roomy new accounts, photos get uploaded at full size—a significant advantage over compression-happy platforms like Facebook and Google Plus.) Since very few people have a quarter million photos in their collection, much less a half million, what this means practically speaking is that Flickr’s giving all its users unlimited storage.
It’s a play right out of the Google playbook (or maybe at this point just the Marissa Mayer playbook). When launching Gmail back in 2004, Google got the web’s attention simply by blasting the longstanding inbox size constraints to smithereens, offering users a jaw-dropping gigabyte of storage for their messages. The promise, essentially, was that you’d never have to delete an email again.
Of course, from a marketing perspective, both a gigabyte then and a terabyte now are even better than just coming out and telling people they have unlimited space. The word "terabyte" is far more impressive, making the whole thing sound like a grand feat of data center engineering and a refreshingly benevolent corporate deed, as opposed to a simple acknowledgment of the fact that data storage is dirt cheap for a company of Yahoo’s size. For most of us whose laptops’ hard drives are still measured in paltry gigs, this is the first taste of what a terabyte really feels like. It tastes cool.
And for old Flickr users, it’s already proving useful. Wired’s Joe Brown noted that, with his new, super-sized account, he immediately got access to all sorts of photos that were lost when he failed to keep up with his old "pro" subscription: "Best part of new flickr: all the photos I lost when I didn’t renew my pro account are magically back thanks to the new storage 'limits.'"
In all, the new design is a nice way of signaling that, under Yahoo’s new stewardship, Flickr won’t just be left to die. Now they just need people to start using it again.