Markus Spiering has, as they say, a good eye. Most of his resume was in mobile before he became a senior product manager for Flickr. In March 2011, he slipped into the head product role, lording over Flickr’s 45 or so employees. “”I have the pleasure to run product management for one of the most exciting web sites in the world: Flickr,” he says on his website. He’s in town for the Photo Hack Day hackathon this weekend, the first small sign of what could be the company’s reinvigorated interest in its audience.
Mr. Spiering is very happy to be making extensive changes to the Flickr interface, the first of which will roll out next week, as he explained in a meeting with Betabeat, Yahoo’s Jason Khoury, and Flickr.com, looking pretty on Mr. Spiering’s Macbook Air.
Mr. Spiering moused over the current photo view. “This is very typical of Flickr,” he said. “Lots of white space, small photos, lots of information around.”
He then opened a new tab to show the spread, completely revamped. Suddenly the photos look more than four times their current size and lie neatly justified on the page, somehow jigsawing together without cropping or changing the order in which they appear.
The new photo view will hit on Feb. 28, Mr. Spiering said, and with it comes a new upload interface. Flickr’s uploading page now looks more like an app than a website. Goodbye, retro blue links. Hello, swoopy drag-and-drop.
Betabeat came away from the conversation with the impression that Yahoo is not sleeping on Flickr, as some users and former employees have suggested. Last month, a small housecleaning booted at least five employees in customer service in order to “centralize” Flickr’s support with other Yahoo customer support, making it available 24 hours a day across the globe and making it more scaleable, Mr. Spiering said.
Outcry arose among Flickr devotees who have been calling for Yahoo to cut the cord. Former Flickr engineer Nolan Caudill wrote a blog post denouncing Yahoo’s “major mistake,” suggesting the move was another example of Flickr’s neglect under its corporate parent. Betabeat ran a thought experiment: “Wherefore Flickr? Ideas for the Beloved Photo Site’s Escape From Yahoo.”
“Seems like taking it private a la StumbleUpon would be great if Yahoo were willing to do it,” one source very familiar with Flickr speculated in an email.
At the time, power user Thomas Hawk—never one to shy away from criticizing Flickr—was actually optimistic. “It could really honestly be Markus Spiering (who now runs flickr) and Yahoo staff cleaning house,” he wrote in an email. “The culture at flickr has been rotten for a long time.”
Community management had been “an absolute disaster,” in his opinion. “It could be that flickr is retooling and actually in a weird way going to try and re-engage their customers,” he wrote.
Yahoo has been paying attention to Flickr all along, Mr. Spiering insisted, and has made a lot of improvements since it bought the site in 2005. “We didn’t communicate as much as we should have,” he said.
He pointed out that the photo page was redesigned as recently as the summer of 2010, and that Yahoo has started integrating Flickr across its products. For example, the Yahoo weather app displays user photos that match the location and weather in the background of the forecast. Flickr will also be integrated into Yahoo Mail soon, he said.
Flickr also changed its pricing structure in January, adding a new Flickr Pro option for $6.95 for three months and dropping the price for a two-year subscription by $5. The lower price points suggests an eye toward user acquisition. (Flickr’s traffic is down since the launch of Google+, according to the notoriously unreliable Compete.com.)
Flickr missed its chance to be Instagram before Instagram was Instagram; it also faces fierce competition from Google+ and Picasa, which is siphoning off some of the social photographers who make up one of Flickr’s core user bases. (Mr. Spiering declined to name who he thinks Flickr’s top competitors are. “It’s very hard to tell,” he said. “People use it in different ways.” Some upload thousands of photos and never leave a comment; others use the site as a photo database; and others exclusively comment but never upload.)
But Flickr is reorienting according to Yahoo’s “mobile first” strategy and the design is thoughtful and forward-looking. The Flickr API is still one of the most popular public APIs, the company says, although two years ago it was the most popular (damn you, Facebook). Flickr actually has an API for almost every function on the site, Mr. Spiering said, although not all are public. He said more than 3.5 million photos are uploaded to Flickr via PC and mobile devices a day.
Flickr will continue to make major changes in waves in 2012, Mr. Spiering said, but there will be no New Flickr campaign. “It is not as if we close the curtain and all of a sudden say, ‘ta da, it’s different!'” he said. It does seem as if Flickr has had an attitude readjustment, at the least.