Google Has Finally Convinced Me to Create My Own Cloud
As a superuser of Google goods and services, the last few months, like 2020 in general, has had me rethink how I approach my digital life. Of all the things I use my smartphones for, music and photos are near the top of that list. I’ve had a system that works, and recent changes by Google have forced me to reevaluate my options.
Requiem for Google Play Music
Back in 2013, Google introduced Google Play Music, a music streaming service with an incredibly ample library at launch. It also had an awesome trick up its sleeve in the form of a cloud music locker where users like me could store and stream all of our hoarded MP3 files for free. The promise was undeniably good and I didn’t even bat an eye before hopping on that gravy train.
It turned out, I quite liked what Google Play Music offered over the years. The music recommendation system was solid (before my kids were old enough to poison the well with their favorite JoJo Siwa tracks, that is.) The Songza-influenced curated playlists were easy to understand and often just what I was looking for when I was indecisive. A mid-life redesign brought new energy to the Android app I was so familiar with and kept me excited about the direction of the brand.
Then, in 2018, Google did what Google does so well. They got bored, or confused, or honestly, I’m not really sure what it was exactly except to say that I’ve seen Google do “it” many times now.
The pièce de résistance, however, was how Play Music seamlessly integrated my uploaded media into the search results alongside, well, everything else in the service’s library. I never had to go digging for my obscure live bootleg of Radiohead performing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California from 2006. It was listed there along with every other Radiohead album after a simple artist search in the app.
Then, in 2018, Google did what Google does so well. They got bored, or confused, or honestly, I’m not really sure what it was exactly except to say that I’ve seen Google do “it” many times now. Google announced that they would be killing Google Play Music and pushing everyone over to YouTube Music, an inferior product that lacked much of what made Google Play Music so great. With the writing on the wall, I knew the day would finally come when I would have to decide who gets my monthly music streaming service allowance. Not only that, I would have to decide what I wanted to do with all that damn cloud music I uploaded years ago.
Once Google finally tore off the band-aid and moved me over to YouTube Music, I was forced to face the many ways that YouTube Music paled in comparison. YouTube Music was so hell-bent on smart playlists and recommendations that it became comparatively difficult to simply pull up an album I knew I liked and just listen to it. My uploaded music was moved to an obscure pocket inside the app with a patience-testing browse function that loads artists 10 at a time while scrolling. Not to mention my YouTube likes (and the aforementioned likes of my children) continue to stain the recommendation engine of my YouTube Music app, a crossover that I’d be surprised that anyone truly wants.
I’ve given it the old college try many times over and in the end, I’ve accepted that YouTube Music is simply not made for me.
Google Photos or roll your own?
On the flip side, there’s Google Photos. Boy, do I take a lot of photos, particularly of my two young daughters because parents like me don’t want to risk missing “the perfect shot.” It also doesn’t help that I test and review smartphones for a living so I’m always looking for something to photograph. Google realized how many of us amateur smartphone photographers there were out there and built a killer app and service for us back in 2015 called Google Photos.
It was truly magical when it launched, with free unlimited cloud storage of photos for all users. Sure, that carried an asterisk of capping the image quality to 16MP and video quality to 1080p, but it was free and unlimited, so who’s complaining really?
Photos was also a big flex of Google’s mammoth A.I. prowess, allowing users to bypass manual tagging of images and simply search for their pictures based on what’s actually in them. The first time I searched my images for guitar, I was gobsmacked at the results. Live concerts I had attended over the years, photos from a punk rock reunion that I had forgotten about, my youngest daughter playing the ukulele. All of it appeared with zero work from me to make it happen. Talk about magic.
What made the deal even sweeter was the fact that Google Pixel owners like me were awarded free photo and video storage at original quality through the end of 2020, a faraway land back in 2017 when I got the Pixel 2 XL. From that day forward, I never once considered the sheer volume of photos and videos I was throwing into the Google cloud.
Do I continue to count on these cloud services to do my bidding for me, or do I take matters into my own hands once and for all?
Recently I used Google Takeout, Google’s data retrieval service, to request my entire Google Photos library resulting in 19 separate 50GB zip files containing everything I’ve ever uploaded. That comes out to around 1 TERABYTE of free storage over the past three years, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Google just announced that going forward, it will stop offering free unlimited storage of high-quality images and videos for all users starting June 1, 2021. Pixel owners will be spared that fate (for now), but any new Pixel releases won’t have the same unlimited storage promise either.
There’s been much teeth gnashing online about the sudden reversal with Google Photos and free storage, but at the end of the day, Google has provided me with free storage of 1 terabyte of information and data for years. Granted, they used my images to improve their own AI systems, but I’m happy to accept what I have already received in exchange for my data to this point. Now I’m faced with a decision that, to be honest, I’ve been putting off for a long time. Do I continue to count on these cloud services to do my bidding for me, or do I take matters into my own hands once and for all?
Forget the Cloud: Why I Back Up the Old-School Way
Paranoia, inertia, and other reasons to avoid cloud backup
In the end, I’m finally tackling the process of creating my own cloud. That’s not to say that I won’t still rely on Google for many things, but at the very least, I’ll know that my music and photos exist in an easily accessible cloud that belongs to me and is bound by my own personal terms of service. After pulling my photo library and music library from Google Takeout, I’m now in the process of getting all of that media into a Plex-friendly format. With a Plex Media Server on my Nvidia Shield TV and a connected hard drive, I can easily host all of my music files so they can be accessed with Plexamp, and my smartphone photos will upload to my Plex drive automatically thanks to a simple toggle in the Plex app settings.
I might even go one step further and finally assemble a NAS (network-attached storage) system for redundancy and flexibility. I want to be sure I respect the importance those digital files hold to my life by protecting them in the case of a disaster.
Through it all I’ve learned to appreciate what I’ve had up until now, and accept my own responsibility with my personal media. Sure it’s a bit more inconvenient, but at the end of the day, aren’t those memories worth the trouble?