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The Internet already swirls with millions of images created by consumers using digital cameras. And by the end of 2004, some 180 million cell phones worldwide will have cameras built in, according to InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, an analysis firm in Weymouth, MA. So it’s not surprising that one of the fastest-growing Internet applications is online photo sharing: the creation of individual or group Web albums where people can upload digital snapshots and invite friends to view and comment on them or order prints.

Not only is it becoming one of the hottest uses of the Web, but it’s also driving a booming business in the sale of website memberships and photo prints. Compared to overall e-commerce revenues, which reached some $54.9 billion last year, earnings at commercial photo-sharing sites in North America are still small, totaling $124 million in the same period; but they’re set to increase to $206 million this year, says Jill Aldort, a senior research analyst at InfoTrends. And several companies, including Microsoft, are introducing technologies intended to turn photo sharing into the basis for supercharged social-computing experiences, meaning everything from photo-enhanced instant messaging to community organizing and networking.

Commercial photo-sharing websites where users can create online photo albums and order prints have been around almost as long as the Web; the names most familiar to consumers today are Ofoto, Shutterfly, Snapfish, and PhotoWorks. A few years ago, Internet users invented a more community-based alternative, the photo weblog. One example is popular “photoblog” that has accumulated some 345,000 members since its founding in 2002. Basic membership is free, but a $5-a-month subscription allows members to upload more photos per day, and during peak hours. “Nowadays people are carrying around cameras in their pockets and briefcases and purses,” says CEO Adam Seifer. “They’re going, Look at that graffiti or that shadow on the wall,’ or That’s the craziest dog I’ve ever seen,’ or That sign is misspelled.’ What do they do with these photos? There were tools like Ofoto and Shutterfly for reprints, but those aren’t as satisfying as an interactive experience with other human beings. When people participate in [Fotolog], they become part of something bigger than just themselves.”

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