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Photoworks: Lots of Negatives

By Tim Mullaney I'm not a major photography hound, but new parenting makes Kodak customers of us all. In the three months since my son Sam came along, I've been playing more and more with online photo-processing services, which I think are among the Web's neatest little consumer toys (see Sept. 3 BW supplement, "Online Pics: A Sure Shot").

These services are easy and convenient because they let you quickly upload photos from a digital camera or PC, then crop and edit the images and order prints. Some also allow you get your traditional film developed and posted online. All let you easily share digital pictures with friends through private e-mail links -- something that's simply tons faster and easier than juggling the many prints I, for example, would need to get photos of Samuel to all the people I want to see them.

Is this a revolution? Maybe not. We've retired our heated 1999 rhetoric, after all. But it's the kind of evolution that makes one small part of life more pleasant.

SWEARING BY, AND AT. Why, then, did I find, one of the largest online photo services, so disappointing? It's not that it got bad references from friends and colleagues: BW Online's Mica Schneider swears by this online affiliate of the former Seattle Film Works, which runs camera stores throughout Washington and Oregon in addition to its film-processing mail-order business. She has found the service fast, the prints clear, and at a price she's willing to pay. Unfortunately, I can't really vouch for Photoworks the same way.

Instead of my colleague's good experience, I found high prices, balky software, and a seemingly unending series of requests for permission to sell my name to marketing partners. The first thing to consider is that all the major services are going to do what they do pretty well: Whether you use AOL, Snapfish, or Photoworks, your photos are likely to look fine. That makes price the key factor.

Snapfish, the service I plan to use now that I've tried them all, charges $1.99 a roll, plus $1.99 for shipping. At Photoworks, the basic price for a roll of 4x6 prints starts at $5.95 for 12 shots and hits $12.95 for the 36-shot rolls I was sending Snapfish. This price is more than the $8.99 AOL says it charges for You've Got Pictures, but less than the $16 I actually paid to AOL's local partner, a.k.a. my corner drugstore.

It's the same product, as nearly as I can tell. And Snapfish contends that its gross margins top 20% even at those prices.

BALKY BEHAVIOR. Uploading pictures was another problem in my test. Using my Netscape browser, I couldn't get Photoworks' software to upload the pictures I have sitting on my office PC. Since the service is more Microsoft Internet Explorer-friendly, I called Photoworks customer support and took their recommendation to try the same task using Explorer. All I got was a different error message.

Later on, the site appeared to have difficulty recognizing me even after I signed in. Similar attempts to upload to all four of the competing sites reviewed in the current issue of went off without a hitch. Again, given the very similar functionality the sites offer, there's not a lot of reason to stick with Photoworks if its behavior is more balky than its peers.

Another thing that really bothered me was being asked more than once whether I would like to get marketing messages from Photoworks, or whether it was O.K. to sell my information to third parties. You get these requests first when you sign up, again when you start to upload photos, and in my case I got them over and over as I continued to try to make the site work properly. Basta. Enough. What part of "No" didn't they understand?

If I'm paying full price for developing and printing the photos, that ought to be business model enough. Trying to position a photo-development service as a filter for marketing offers I might actually want to receive strikes me as distinctly unpromising.

POSITIVES. Now, PhotoWorks does have good points. Unlike Ofoto and Shutterfly, it includes printed pictures in the basic cost of developing your film. Ofoto and Shutterfly include only online posting of your shots in the base price, while charging 49 cents and up for digital prints. (For the 27 shots in a disposable camera, that works out to $13.23).

All of these sites make side businesses of selling photo-related tchotchkes like frames, T-shirts, mouse pads, and the like. Photoworks has by far the best selection of this stuff, including sweatshirts, tote bags, and even Christmas ornaments that can be imprinted with your favorite shots. In my house, where I buy a new ornament to memorialize each passing year, I suspect 2001 may well be recorded with a photo ornament of our long-awaited, yet seriously unexpected, new arrival.

For most people most of the time, though, the promising field of online photography offers competitors that did better than Photoworks in my tests. Snapfish had the best balance of price and features -- you can't argue with $3.98 -- while services like Ofoto and Shutterfly essentially discourage you from getting most of your pictures printed. Like them, Photoworks could use some work. Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek

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