Flickr: No Flash in the Pan

This week's Business Week has a good review of Flickr. They give it four and a half stars.

The Good Uploading and organizing photos are a snap, and the sharing capabilities are great
The Bad Tedious sign-up will deter friends who want to just quickly view a few snapshots
The Bottom Line Flickr is the most innovative photo site around

Now that users can order prints online, one of the most innovative photo sites on the Web just got even better

Things change fast in the online photo sharing and printing business. Since I started writing reviews of these services, such as Kodak's (EK ) EasyShare Gallery, Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ ) Snapfish, and independents like Shutterfly and dotPhoto, each has introduced at least one new feature or price change.

For instance, on Oct. 25 dotPhoto debuted an option for users to upload their own music to slideshows. That move came just a week after I panned the service's corny preset music options. It resulted in a "Stop the presses!" moment for an overview story I did for BusinessWeek magazine -- we changed the text just hours before sending it off to the printers (see BW, 11/7/05, "Which Photo Sites are Best?").

The most recent change, launched on Oct. 26, is Yahoo!'s (YHOO ) decision to let users order prints from Flickr, its photo-sharing site. Flickr has an intuitive and slick user interface and a cult following of users who love to share and blog their photos. Unfortunately, during my early tests, users had to look elsewhere to get glossies in the mail. While I enjoyed using the service, I still had reservations about giving it a top ranking. After all, it seemed to play to just one niche.

Now, Yahoo has announced that users can order prints from Flickr, and that change vaults the service out of the realm of a limited specialty site. Though Flickr has a few shortcomings (and I'm still waiting to see how its prints stack up), it's the most innovative and fun photo site on the Web -- and one I would recommend to just about anyone.

PLAYING TAG. For users looking to do basic print sharing, Flickr is extremely easy to use. The service lets you upload photos via the browser or by downloading a small piece of software that allows you to drag photos en masse into a small box on your desktop. After you hit the "upload" button, the program automatically takes you to a screen where you can add titles and short captions for each photo, as well as "tags" -- short keywords that help you organize the photos and search through them later.

For a group of shots from my cousin's wedding, I tagged each photo with the name of each person in the photo and labelled the whole batch as "Mimi's Wedding." After that, Flickr lets you drag the photos into different "sets" that can be viewed as separate slide shows. The entire process is very simple and doesn't take too much clicking.

Once you upload the photos, Flickr lets you and your friends view the pictures in several different sizes, the largest of which nearly fills the screen. That's a big advantage over other sites, which typically present all images as 4-in. by 6-in., which feels too small on most computer monitors. The high-resolution photos are big and bright on the screen and make you feel proud to have plunked down the cash for a camera with extra megapixels.

REGISTRATION ORDEAL. Unlike the other sites, Flickr doesn't really have any editing features beyond the ability to rotate photos. It would be nice to have a few basic tools here, but I have to say that editing offerings on other sites range from mediocre to just terrible, and so far I haven't been using any of them. You're far better off using dedicated photo-editing software locally on your PC, and it could be that the Flickr engineers agreed with me.

Sharing is a bit different than on other sites. Instead of sending specific albums to friends, Yahoo requires them to sign-up for the entire Flickr service. It's sort of like a social network -- as your friend, they can access all of your photos. This is great for active users who like to regularly check in to see what their pals are up to.

If you just want to show some friends and family members a few photos, it's cumbersome. If they aren't already Yahoo users, they have to go through the sign-up process for a full Yahoo ID. It asks the user dozens of questions, including birth date, job title, and alternate e-mail address.

Several members of my family just gave up on the sign-up process before actually making it to the snapshots. Once friends log in, the photos look great and are easy to view, but there really needs to be a quick-view option for non-Yahoo users that doesn't force them to go through the sign-up process.

GREAT PROCRASTINATION ACTIVITY. Flickr also offers some advanced features not found on other sites. The tags are one of the best and most innovative. By typing a tag -- say, a friend's name -- into a search field, I can quickly bring up every photo with her in it. Beyond your own little world, you can also do a broader tag search, since Flickr gives users the option of making photos public on the site.

So if you want to see other pictures of, say, Central Park in New York, a quick search will bring up thousands of photos taken both by everyday tourists and New Yorkers. The Web site has so many users that you often can make some surprising findings. Doing a global search for the tag "Mimi's Wedding," for instance, showed me wedding photos of a few other women named Mimi. Weird, huh?

The public nature of Flickr takes it beyond simple sharing with friends into a great procrastination activity, too. (Again, it's your choice whether to make your photos public. Flickr will restrict access to select friends, if you want). Many pictures on the site are taken by serious photographers, and Yahoo has a special area it calls "interestingness," where it showcases some of the most stunning shots of the day.

THE BIG PICTURE. From here, users can comment on strangers' photos and highlight and critique specific portions of the shot. Photographs become the starting point for some very interesting dialogues about the work, and often I ended up visiting and surfing around the site just to see what's new. Because most of the photos are viewable in high-resolution and fully downloadable, I ended up finding a few cool new images for my computer's wallpaper in the meantime.

Some improvements are still needed with the print-ordering feature. Currently, you can only buy prints by clicking "order" on each shot individually and adding it to your cart. This is pesky when you want 40 or 50 prints from an album. Also, there's no way to purchase prints of others' photos, be they friends or strangers. Hopefully this will change as the service ramps up.

Still, the robust social aspect of Flickr, along with its solid nuts-and-bolts sharing and uploading software, send the service leaps and bounds ahead of the more conventional photo sites. With the new print-ordering capabilities, it's a great one-stop photo option for all users. Hopefully, the quality of the prints will be up to snuff, too. I've ordered some, so in a few days, I'll let you know in the comment box below this story how they stack up.

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