Recently I covered new online photo sites from Web giants Google and Yahoo. In both write-ups I mentioned that these sites really need synchronization capability. Here's why: Most people keep their photo libraries on their computers. And that's the way it should be. While Web applications are great, there's really nothing like desktop software for speed, especially when you are dealing with large files such as photos.
But to share images, we generally upload them to Web sites because it's easier for our friends to get to those sites than to the images on our computers, which at any time may be bandwidth-limited, disconnected, or turned off.
I believe you should be able to make changes to photos on your PC and have those changes automatically reflected in your online albums. You should also be able to make changes on the Web and see them on your PC. Anything else is a recipe for disaster or at least confusion. As users' photo libraries grow and we all share more libraries online, it's won't be practical for us to keep track of the different versions of our media that we're now storing in different places.
There are (at least) two tools that enable computer-to-Web photo synchronization now: Phanfare and Sharpcast. (Other players include Photosite, which has a desktop application with rudimentary synchronization capabilities, and CNET's own Webshots, which I can't cover because of our conflict-of-interest policy.) I covered the Sharpcast concept briefly from the D4 conference. But recently the product became available as an alpha release, and I was eager to compare it to Phanfare.
Both products have desktop applications that you use to manage your online photo albums. In both applications you can acquire photos, create albums, and edit photos to varying degrees. With Sharpcast and Phanfare, as soon as you make a change to your photos or albums on the desktop, it's automatically replicated to your Web account.
Also in both systems, if you install the desktop client on a new computer, then connect it to your online account, it reads in your photos from the Net when you start up, so any photos you've put into these systems won't be lost if you have a hard drive catastrophe on your home PC. You can also put separate computers on the same account, and changes you make on one machine are instantly replicated to the other. This is exactly why synchronization is the way to go: Once you put your file in the system, you don't have to worry about where it is. It's everywhere.
For the moment, the Phanfare desktop client has an advantage over Sharpcast, since it supports video files, and it has a decent, if basic, photo editor.
On the Web, Phanfare has a more engaging slide-show function: it plays background music and does Ken Burns-like pans and zooms on images to keep things dynamic. It will also play video files if they're in photo albums and appropriately duck the music track down so that you can hear the audio. Sharpcast's slide shows are basic.
On the other hand, Sharpcast allows you to do rudimentary editing on its Web site. You can reorganize photos, create albums, and even add photos. (Phanfare should get online album-editing capabilities this summer.) Changes you make on Sharpcast's site are replicated to your desktop application, which again is what we should expect from offline/online products like this. You edit anywhere and see your changes everywhere. Phanfare's synchronization is one-way, from PC to Web only. You can't edit your albums online.
On the other hand, there's no storage limit in Phanfare; Sharpcast, still in alpha test, limits you to 2GB (about 2,000 photos).
Both systems let you give selective photo access to certain people. So even if you have your entire library online, that doesn't mean everybody will be able to see it.
Both systems also allow you to e-mail photos into them, so you can add media to your account from anywhere, including from a camera phone. But in Phanfare, you have to manage the new photos from your PC.
Dozens of photo-sharing services exist, and eventually more of them will get offline and synchronization tools. For the moment, the best bet for photo syncing is Phanfare. Sharpcast appears to have a more complete synchronization offering (there's even a mobile slide-show editor coming), but the product is still in alpha testing.
Phanfare's downside: Aside from its current one-way (PC-to-Web) synchronization limitation, it's also one of the few photo sites that doesn't offer free services. There's a 30-day trial, but after that it costs $55 a year.
Neither of these integrated solutions is, yet, a workable replacement for a full-fledged PC photo management system such as Picasa, Acdsee, or iPhoto. But they do make working with online albums much easier, and they give us a hint of what the future of photo management will offer: integrated local/online photo management, where you get the speed and capability of local computers, the ability to share media over the Web, and synchronized storage so that you don't have to worry about managing separate libraries.
Do you want all your photos in one interface?