Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Rant Time: Flickr is running out of time & money?

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on December 19, 2019

Flickr2I received a rather questionable email about Flickr allegedly from Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug.

Unfortunately, his email is also wrapped in the guise of email marketing and arrived through the same marketing channel as all other email marketing from Flickr.

Don, if you want us to take this situation seriously, you shouldn’t use email marketing platforms to do it. These emails need to come personally from you using a SmugMug or Flickr address. They also shouldn’t contain several email marketing links. An email from the CEO should contain only ONE link and it should be at the very bottom of the email.

The information contained in this letter is not a surprise in general, but the way it arrived and the tone it takes is a surprise coming from a CEO, particularly when it takes the format of generic email marketing. Let’s explore.

Flickr Pro

I will place the letter at the bottom so you can it read in full. The gist of the letter is, “We’re running out of money, so sign up right away!”

I want to take the time to discuss the above “running out of money” point. Here’s an excerpt from Don’s email:

We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.

Let’s start by saying, why on Earth would I ever sign up for a money losing service that is in danger of closing? Seriously, Flickr? Are you mad? Don’t give me assurances that *I* can save your business with my single conversion. It’s going to take MANY someones to keep Flickr afloat if it’s running out of money. Worse, sending this email to former Pro members trying to get us to convert again is a losing proposition. Send it to someone who cares, assuming there is anyone like that.

A single conversion isn’t likely to do a damned thing to stem the tide of your money hemorrhaging, Flickr. Are you insane to send out a letter like this in this generic email marketing way? If anything, a letter like this may see even MORE of your existing members run for the hills by cancelling their memberships, instead of trying to save Flickr from certain doom. But, let’s ignore this letter’s asinine message and focus on why I decided to write this article.

Flickr is Dead to Me

I had an email exchange in November of 2018 with Flickr’s team. I make my stance exceedingly clear exactly why I cancelled my Pro membership and why their inexplicable price increase is pointless. And yes, it is a rant. This exchange goes as follows:

Susan from Flickr states:

When we re-introduced the annual Flickr Pro at $49.99 more than 3 years ago, we promised all grandfathered Pros (including the bi-annual and 3-month plans) a 2-year protected price period. We have kept this promise, but in order to continue providing our best service to all of our customers, we are now updating the pricing for grandfathered Pros. We started this process on August 16, 2018.

With this being the case, bi-annual Pros pay $99.98 every 2 years, annual Pros pay $49.99 every year, and 3-month Pros pay $17.97 every 3 months. Notifications including the price increase have been sent out to our users starting from August 16.

I then write back the following rant:

Hi Susan,

Yes, and that means you’ve had more than ample time to make that $50 a year worth it for Pro subscribers. You haven’t and you’ve failed. It’s still the same Flickr it was when I was paying $22.48 a year. Why should I now pay over double the price for no added benefits? Now that SmugMug has bought it, here we are now being forced to pay the $50 a year toll when there’s nothing new that’s worth paying $50 for. Pro users have been given ZERO tools to sell our photos on the platform as stock photos. Being given these tools is what ‘Pro’ means, Susan. We additionally can’t in any way monetize our content to recoup the cost of our Pro membership fees. Worse, you’re displaying ads over the top our photos and we’re not seeing a dime from that revenue.

Again, what have you given that makes $50 a year worth it? You’re really expecting us to PAY you $50 a year to show ads to free users over the top of our content? No! I was barely willing to do that with $22.48 a year. Of course, this will all fall on deaf ears because these words mean nothing to you. It’s your management team pushing stupid efforts that don’t make sense in a world where Flickr is practically obsolete. Well, I’m done with using a 14 year old decrepit platform that has degraded rather than improved. Sorry Susan, I’ve removed over 2500 photos, cancelled my Pro membership and will move back to the free tier. If SmugMug ever comes to its senses and actually produces a Pro platform worth using (i.e., actually offers monetization tools or even a storefront), I might consider paying. As it is now, Flickr is an antiquated 14 year old platform firmly rooted in a 2004 world. Wake up, it’s 2018! The iStockphotos of the world are overtaking you and offering better Pro tools.

Bye.

Flickr and SmugMug

When Flickr was purchased by SmugMug, I wasn’t expecting much from Flickr. But, I also didn’t expect Flickr to double its prices while also providing nothing in return. The platform has literally added nothing to improve the “Pro” aspect of its service. You’re simply paying more for the privilege of having ads placed over the top of your photos. Though, what SmugMug might claim you’re paying for is entirely the privilege of the tiniest bit more storage space to store a few more photos.

Back when storage costs were immense, that pricing might have made sense. In an age where storage costs are impossibly low, that extra per month pricing is way out of line. SmugMug and Flickr should have spent their time adding actual “Pro” tools so that photographers can, you know, make money from their photos by selling them, leasing them, producing framed physical wall hangings, mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, and so on. Let us monetize our one and only one product… you know, like Deviant Art does. Instead, SmugMug has decided to charge more, then place ads over the top of our photos and not provide even a fraction of what Deviant Art does for free.

As a photographer, why should I spend $50 a year on Flickr only to gain nothing when I can move my photos to Deviant Art and pay nothing a year AND get many more tools which help me monetize my images? I can also submit them to stock photo services and make money off of leasing them to publications, something still not possible at Flickr.

Don’s plea is completely disingenuous. You can’t call something “Pro” when there’s nothing professional about it. But then, Don feels compelled to call out where they have actually hosted Flickr and accidentally explains why Flickr is losing money.

We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way.

What modernization? Hosting a service on AWS doesn’t “modernize” anything. It’s a hosting platform. Worse, this hosting decision is entirely the cause of SmugMug’s central money woes with Flickr. AWS is THE most expensive cloud hosting platform available. There is nothing whatsoever cheap about using AWS’s storage and compute platforms. Yes, AWS works well, but the bill at the end of the month sucks. To keep the lights on when hosting at AWS, plan to spend a mint.

If SmugMug wanted to save on costs of hosting Flickr, they should have migrated it to a much lower cost hosting platform instead of sending empty marketing promises asking people to “help save the platform”. Changing hosting platforms might require more hands on effort for SmugMug’s technical staff, but SmugMug can likely half the costs of hosting this platform by moving it to lower cost hosting providers… providers that will work just as well as AWS.

Trying to urge past subscribers to re-up into Pro again simply to “save its AWS hosting decision”, not gonna happen. Those of us who’ve gotten no added benefit by paying money to Flickr in the past are not eager to return. Either give us a legitimate reason to pay money to you (add a storefront or monetization tools) or spend your time moving Flickr to a lower cost hosting service, one where Flickr can make money.

Don, why not use your supposed CEO prowess to have your team come up with lower cost solutions? I just did. It’s just a thought. You shouldn’t rely on such tactless and generic email marketing practices to solve the ills of Flickr and SmugMug. You bought it, you have to live with it. If that means Flickr must shutdown because you can’t figure out a way to save it, then so be it.

Below is Don MacAskill’s email in all of its unnecessary email marketing glory (links redacted):

Dear friends,

Flickr—the world’s most-beloved, money-losing business—needs your help.

Two years ago, Flickr was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. Our company, SmugMug, stepped in to rescue it from being shut down and to save tens of billions of your precious photos from being erased.

Why? We’ve spent 17 years lovingly building our company into a thriving, family-owned and -operated business that cares deeply about photographers. SmugMug has always been the place for photographers to showcase their photography, and we’ve long admired how Flickr has been the community where they connect with each other. We couldn’t stand by and watch Flickr vanish.

So we took a big risk, stepped in, and saved Flickr. Together, we created the world’s largest photographer-focused community: a place where photographers can stand out and fit in.

We’ve been hard at work improving Flickr. We hired an excellent, large staff of Support Heroes who now deliver support with an average customer satisfaction rating of above 90%. We got rid of Yahoo’s login. We moved the platform and every photo to Amazon Web Services (AWS), the industry leader in cloud computing, and modernized its technology along the way. As a result, pages are already 20% faster and photos load 30% more quickly. Platform outages, including Pandas, are way down. Flickr continues to get faster and more stable, and important new features are being built once again.

Our work is never done, but we’ve made tremendous progress.

Now Flickr needs your help. It’s still losing money. Hundreds of thousands of loyal Flickr members stepped up and joined Flickr Pro, for which we are eternally grateful. It’s losing a lot less money than it was. But it’s not yet making enough.

We need more Flickr Pro members if we want to keep the Flickr dream alive.

We didn’t buy Flickr because we thought it was a cash cow. Unlike platforms like Facebook, we also didn’t buy it to invade your privacy and sell your data. We bought it because we love photographers, we love photography, and we believe Flickr deserves not only to live on but thrive. We think the world agrees; and we think the Flickr community does, too. But we cannot continue to operate it at a loss as we’ve been doing.

Flickr is the world’s largest photographer-focused community. It’s the world’s best way to find great photography and connect with amazing photographers. Flickr hosts some of the world’s most iconic, most priceless photos, freely available to the entire world. This community is home to more than 100 million accounts and tens of billions of photos. It serves billions of photos every single day. It’s huge. It’s a priceless treasure for the whole world. And it costs money to operate. Lots of money.

Flickr is not a charity, and we’re not asking you for a donation. Flickr is the best value in photo sharing anywhere in the world. Flickr Pro members get ad-free browsing for themselves and their visitors, advanced stats, unlimited full-quality storage for all their photos, plus premium features and access to the world’s largest photographer-focused community for less than $5 per month.

You likely pay services such as Netflix and Spotify at least $9 per month. I love services like these, and I’m a happy paying customer, but they don’t keep your priceless photos safe and let you share them with the most important people in your world. Flickr does, and a Flickr Pro membership costs less than $1 per week.

Please, help us make Flickr thrive. Help us ensure it has a bright future. Every Flickr Pro subscription goes directly to keeping Flickr alive and creating great new experiences for photographers like you. We are building lots of great things for the Flickr community, but we need your help. We can do this together.

We’re launching our end-of-year Pro subscription campaign on Thursday, December 26, but I want to invite you to subscribe to Flickr Pro today for the same 25% discount.

We’ve gone to great lengths to optimize Flickr for cost savings wherever possible, but the increasing cost of operating this enormous community and continuing to invest in its future will require a small price increase early in the new year, so this is truly the very best time to upgrade your membership to Pro.

If you value Flickr finally being independent, built for photographers and by photographers, we ask you to join us, and to share this offer with those who share your love of photography and community.

With gratitude,

Don MacAskill
Co-Founder, CEO & Chief Geek

SmugMug + Flickr

Use and share coupon code [redacted] to get 25% off Flickr Pro now.

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Technology Watch: Calling it — Wii U is dead

Posted in botch, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 10, 2013

I want Nintendo to prove me wrong. I absolutely adore the Wii U system and its technology. The Gamepad is stellar and it feels absolutely perfect in your hands. It just needs a better battery. The battery life sucks. There’s no doubt about it, the Wii U is an amazing improvement over the Wii. So what’s wrong with it?

Titan Tidal Forces

There are many tidal forces amassing against the Wii U which will ultimately be its demise. In similarity to the amazing Sega Dreamcast and, before that, the Atari Jaguar, the Wii U will likely expire before it even makes a dent in the home gaming market. Some consoles just aren’t meant to be and the Wii U, I’m calling it, will be discontinued within 12 months in lieu of a newly redesigned and renamed ‘innovative’ Nintendo console.  Let’s start with the first tidal force…

What Games?

Nintendo just cannot seem to entice any developer interest in porting games to the Wii U, let alone creating native titles. With such big game franchises as Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row 3 and Deadpool (Activision, surprisingly) side-stepping the Wii U, this tells me that at least Rockstar and Activision really don’t have much interest in producing titles for this console. Even such bigger titles like Call of Duty, which did make it to the Wii U, didn’t release on the same day as the PS3 and Xbox versions.  Call of Duty actually released later, as did The Amazing Spider-Man.

Worse, Nintendo doesn’t really seem committed to carrying any of its own franchises to this console in any timely fashion. To date, there is still not even an announcement for a native Zelda for Wii U. Although, we’re not yet past E3, so I’ll wait to see on this one. My guess is that there will be a Zelda, but it will likely fall far shy of what it should or could have been.

Basically, there are literally no upcoming game announcements from third party developers. And there’s especially nothing forthcoming from the big franchises on the Wii U (other than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV, which is likely to be just another mashup and rehash). Yes, there are a number of b-titles and ‘family’ titles, but that’s what Nintendo is always known for.

Sidestepped, but why?

I see titles like Grand Theft Auto V, Saint’s Row 3, Destiny and Deadpool where there is no mention of a Wii U version. For at least GTA5 and Saint’s Row, these developers likely had well enough of a lead time to be able to create a Wii U version. So, what happened? Why would these games not be released for the Wii U?  I think it’s very clear, these developers don’t think they can recoup their investment in the cost needed to produce the game for that console. That doesn’t mean that the games won’t be ported to the Wii U six months after the Xbox, PS3 and PC releases. But then, what’s the incentive to play a 6 month old game? I don’t want to pay $60 for has-beens, I want new games to play.

Hardcore gamers want the latest at the moment when it’s released. Not six months after other consoles already have it. As a hardcore gamer, I don’t want to wait for titles to release. Instead, I’ll go buy the an Xbox or a PS so I can play the game when it’s released, not wait 6-9 months for a poorly ported version of the game.

Competition

With the announcement of both Sony’s PS4 (*yawn*) and the Microsoft’s Xbox One ( :/ ), these two consoles together are likely to eclipse whatever hope the Wii U has of gaining the hardcore gaming element. In fact, it’s likely that Sony’s PS4 is already dead as well, but that’s another story. Also, with the lackluster announcement of the Xbox One, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Needless to say, people only have so much money to spend on hardware and only one of these consoles can really become dominant in the marketplace. For a lot of reasons to be explored later in this article, Nintendo’s Wii U cannot survive with the course it is presently on.

I can’t really call which is the bigger yawn, PS4 or Xbox One, but both have problems. Namely, no compatibility to previous console games which really puts a damper on both of these next gen consoles. Maybe not enough for either of them not to become successes in 5 years, but immediate adoption is a concern. Available launch titles will make or break these new consoles as backwards compatibility is not available. Meaning, without launch titles, there’s literally nothing to play (other than Netflix, which you can pay far less than the price of a console to get.. i.e., Roku). For competition alone, this is a huge tidal force against Nintendo that will ultimately keep the Wii U in third place, if not outright dead.

Let’s not forget the nVidia Shield based on Android that is as yet an unknown quantity. Although, the way it is currently presented with the flip up screen and the requirement to stream games to the unit from a PC is a big downer on the usability of this system as a portable. I don’t believe nVidia’s approach will succeed. If you’re a portable system, then it needs to be truly portable with native games. If you’re a console, then make it a console and split the functionality into two units (a controller and a base unit).  The all-in-one base unit and controller, like the Shield, isn’t likely to be successful or practical.  The attached screen, in fact, is 1) fragile and likely to break with heavy usage and 2) make it hard to play games because the screen shakes (loosening the hinge) when you shake the controller.  For the PS Vita, it works okay. For the Shield that still requires a PC to function, this isn’t a great deal, especially at the $350 price tag.

Nintendo Itself

Nintendo is its own worst enemy. Because it has always pushed and endorsed ‘family friendly’ (all age) games over ‘hardcore’ (17+ aged) games, the Wii U has pushed Nintendo into an extremely uncomfortable position. It must now consider allowing extremely violent, bloody, explicit language games into the Wii U to even hope to gain market share with the hardcore 17-34 aged gamers.  In other words, Nintendo finally has to grow up and make the hard decision. Is it or isn’t it a hardcore gamer system?  Nintendo faces this internal dilemma which leaves the Wii U hanging in the balance.

It’s clear that most already released titles have skirted this entire problem. Yes, even Call of Duty and Zombie U do mostly. Assassin’s Creed III is probably the hardest core game on the system and even that isn’t saying much.

Game developers see this and really don’t want to wrestle with having to ‘dumb down’ a game to Nintendo’s family friendly standards.  If I were a developer, I’d look at the Wii U and also ask, “Why bother?” Unfortunately, this is a catch-22 problem for Nintendo. Meaning, Nintendo can’t get people to buy the system without titles, but Nintendo can’t rope in developers to write software without having an audience for those titles. The developers just won’t spend their time writing native titles for a system when there’s not enough users to justify the expense of the development.

Worse, the developers realize they will also have to provide a ‘dumbed down’ version for the Nintendo platform to placate Nintendo’s incessant ‘family friendly’ attitude. For this reason, Nintendo can’t turn the Wii U into a hardcore system without dropping these unnecessary and silly requirements for hardcore games. Nintendo, as a word of advice, just let the developers write and publish the game as it is. Let the ratings do the work.

Bad Marketing

For most people, the perception is that the Wii U is nothing more than a slightly different version of the Wii. The marketing was all wrong for this console. Most people’s perceptions of this system are completely skewed. They really don’t know what the Wii U is other than just being another Wii. This issue is cemented by naming the system the ‘Wii U’.  It should have had an entirely different name without the word ‘Wii’. Unfortunately, the Wii was mostly a fad and not a true long-lasting gaming system. It picked up steam at first not because it was great, but because people latched onto the group gaming quality. For a time, people liked the ‘invite people over for a party’ quality of the Wii. This group gaming quality was something no other gaming system had up to that point. Then came the Kinect and the Move controllers and competition wiped that advantage out.

The Wii U design has decidedly dropped the idea of group gaming in lieu of the Gamepad which firmly takes gaming back to a single player experience. Yes, the Wii U does support the sensor bar, but few Wii U games use it. Worse, the Wii U doesn’t even ship with the Wiimote or Nunchuk, firmly cementing the single player experience. Only Wii compatible games use the sensor bar for the multiple player experience. Because of the focus back to single player usage, this again says Nintendo is trying to rope in hardcore gamers.

Unfortunately, the marketing plan for the Wii U just isn’t working. The box coloring, the logo, the name and the way it looks seems like a small minimal upgrade to the Wii. Until people actually see a game like Batman Arkham City, the Amazing Spider-Man or Call of Duty actually play on the Wii U, they really don’t understand what the ‘big deal’ is. Worse, they really don’t see a need replace their aging Wii with this console knowing that they rarely play it at this point anyway. So, when the Wii U was released, the average Wii user just didn’t understand the Wii U appeal. The Wii U marketing just didn’t sell this console to either the family audience or to the hardcore gamer correctly.

Bad Controller Button Placement

The final piece of this puzzle may seem insignificant, but it’s actually very significant to the hardcore game player. Because the PS3 and the Xbox map action buttons identically to the controller across games, you always know that when you press A, it’s going to do the same thing on the Xbox or the PS3.  So, you can move seamlessly between either console and play the same game without having so shift your button pressing pattern. In other words, you can play blind because the button location+action is identical between the Xbox and the PS3.  The buttons placement is then as follows:

Y/Triangle = 12 o’clock, B/Circle = 3 o’clock, A/X = 6 o’clock, X/Square = 9 o’clock (Xbox / PS3)

The actions of Y and Triangle are the same between the systems.  The actions of B and Circle are the same and so on. If you play Call of Duty on PS3 or Xbox, you always press the button at the 6 o’clock position to perform the same action.

The Wii U designers decided to place the buttons in opposition to the Xbox & PS3. The button placement for Wii U:

X = 12 o’clock, A = 3 o’clock, B = 6 o’clock, Y = 9 o’clock (Wii U)

This button placement would be fine if A (3 o’clock) on the Wii performed the same action as the B/Circle (3 o’clock position) on the Xbox and PS3. But, it doesn’t. Instead, because the Wii’s controller is labeled ‘A’ (3 o’clock position), it has the same function as the ‘A/X’ (6 o’clock position) button the Xbox and PS3. The ‘B’ button at (6 o’clock) matches the B/Circle (3 o’clock) on the Xbox/PS3. This means that you have to completely reverse your play on the Wii U and retrain yourself to press the correct button. This means you can’t play blind. This is a difficult challenge if you’ve been playing game franchises on the Xbox for 10 years with the Xbox/PS3 button and action placement. This would be like creating a reversed QWERTY keyboard so that P starts on the left and Q ends on the right and handing it to a QWERTY touch typist.  Sure, they could eventually learn to type with keys in this order, but it’s not going to be easy and they’re going to hit P thinking it’s Q and such for quite a while.

For hardcore Xbox gamers, making the switch to the Wii U is a significant controller retraining challenge. When I replayed Assassin’s Creed III, I was forever hitting the button at the 6 o’clock position thinking it was the A button because that’s the position where it is on the Xbox and PS3. Same for the reversed X and Y.  By the end of Assassin’s Creed III, I had more or less adapted to the Wii U’s backwards controller, but I made a whole lot of stupid mistakes along the way just from this button placement issue alone.

Either the games need to support Xbox/PS3 alternative action placement compatibility or the Wii U needs to sell a controller that maps the buttons identically to the Xbox and PS3. I personally vote for a new controller as it doesn’t require game designers to do anything different. This button placement issue alone is a huge hurdle for the Wii U to overcome and one that is a needlessly stupid design when you’re trying to entice Xbox or PS3 gamers to your platform. I don’t want to relearn a new controller design just to play a game. Ergonomics is key in adoption and this is just one big Nintendo ergonomics design fail. For the Wii, that button placement was fine. For the Wii U, the controller needs to identically map to the PS3 and Xbox button/action layout to allow for easy and widespread adoption.

Death of the Wii U

Unfortunately, due to the above factors, Nintendo will struggle to keep this console afloat before it finally throws in the towel to the Xbox One and the PS4. Worse, the Wii U really doesn’t have a niche. It lost its fad group gaming image over a year ago when people stopped buying the Wii for that purpose. Those who did use it for that shoved it into a closet. The Wii U may have been somewhat positioned to become a hardcore system, but due to poor controller button placement, lack of quality developers producing hardcore titles, the Wii U’s silly user interface, Nintendo’s antiquated ‘family friendly’ attitudes and Nintendo itself placing silly requirements on titles to reduce violence and language as part of that antiquated attitude, the Wii U doesn’t really have a market. It just doesn’t appeal to the hardcore gamers. So what’s left? Zelda and Mario and that’s not enough to invest in the Wii U.

Just looking at the titles presently available for the Wii U, at least 85% of which were original launch titles (most of which were ported from other consoles).  In combination with the new fall console hardware releases plus hardcore titles for existing consoles that completely sidestep the Wii U, Wii U just cannot succeed without some kind of major miracle out of Nintendo.

I full well expect to hear an announcement from Nintendo dropping the Wii U, not unlike Sega’s announcement to pull the plug on the Dreamcast so early into its console life.

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