Former Google SVP and current AliveCor CEO Vic Gundotra has thoughts on smartphone cameras. The man who was once in charge of Android, and everything else mobile at Google, gifted tech reporters with many a choice quote this weekend.
The iPhone is the only option for taking great photos on a phone. Android is for people who don't mind being a few years behind. Apple's lead in computational photography is what sets it apart. Android by its nature impedes innovation in mobile photography.
Gundotra isn't wrong in saying that the iPhone 7 Plus takes great photos. The original photos he posted to Facebook, of two smiling kids in a dark restaurant, captured through the iPhone's portrait mode, are impressive.
Gundotra also talks about computational photography, a major trend in phone cameras right now, and says that — get ready for the juiciest quote of the bunch — he would "NEVER buy an Android phone again" if he cares about photography. Based on his posting history, Vic seems to care quite a lot about photography. So it follows that he's not planning to buy another Android phone ever again. Considering who he is and the positions at Google he once held, that's pretty newsworthy, however flimsy the arguments supporting it might be.
But first, some backstory.
Vic Gundotra vs. Vic Gundotra
People change jobs all the time. The fast pace of change in the tech world means that allegiances can also change rapidly. Nevertheless, the total 180-degree turn that Vic Gundotra has executed on Android photography is worth some examination.
The total 180-degree turn that Vic Gundotra has executed on Android photography is worth noting.
Gundotra worked closely with Steve Jobs on Google apps for the original iPhone before publicly torpedoing Apple (and its CEO) at Google I/O 2010. Here's Vic on open versus closed at the time, in his role as SVP overseeing mobile.
"If Google did not act [with Android], we faced a draconian future — a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice. That's a future we don't want."
From 2011 to 2013, Gundotra led Google's social efforts. Here he is again in 2013 talking up the prospects for future Nexus cameras on Google+.
"We are committed to making Nexus phones insanely great cameras. Just you wait and see."
Four years later, he's firmly back in the iPhone camp.
"I would NEVER buy an Android phone again if I cared about photography."
"If you truly care about great photography, you own an iPhone. If you don't mind being a few years behind, buy an Android."
Life, it seems, comes at you fast.
As noted, Gundotra hasn't worked for Google for four years at this point, and so he's under no obligation to toe the party line anymore.
But it's not his high praise for the iPhone that makes these juxtaposed quotations so jarring, it's the vigor with which he goes after his former employer's platform.
And what makes it all the more strange is that his arguments really don't stand up to much scrutiny in the smartphone ecosystem of 2017.
The problem is not Android
Gundotra draws a tenuous line between Android's open-source nature and its supposed laggardness in photography.
Here is the problem: It's Android. Android is an open source (mostly) operating system that has to be neutral to all parties. This sounds good until you get into the details. Ever wonder why a Samsung phone has a confused and bewildering array of photo options? Should I use the Samsung Camera? Or the Android Camera? Samsung gallery or Google Photos?
Well, for starters, the "Android Camera" app does not exist and never has. (The Google Camera was briefly available on the Play Store, but not anymore. And it was certainly never a required preload on phones from other manufacturers.)
The lack of Google APIs for every single feature didn't stand in the way of image quality, or innovation.
Your Samsung phone will use the Samsung camera app to take photos. That camera app is maintained and updated by Samsung, and tuned to get the best possible photos from whichever Galaxy you own. Just like Apple does for the iPhone.
The Gallery/Photos thing? Yeah, still kind of a mess from a user experience standpoint. But it doesn't impact the photography itself.
It's because when Samsung innovates with the underlying hardware (like a better camera) they have to convince Google to allow that innovation to be surfaced to other applications via the appropriate API. That can take YEARS.
Also true, but also a factor that affects what you can do with your pictures after the fact. Many manufacturers included RAW capture support on Android phones before Google introduced the Camera2 API in Lollipop — they didn't have to wait for Google to act, they could innovate of their own accord.
Google occupies a powerful position as a platform holder, but Android manufacturers have managed to include all kinds of wacky and innovative features on top of the OS, without waiting for Google's code to be updated with new APIs. That includes camera technology, where Android phones have been first with dual-camera systems, multi-frame photography, 4K video recording, 960fps slow-mo, simulated depth-of-field and countless other innovations.
All of these features work great on the devices they're built for. Just like portrait mode on the iPhone.
Also the greatest innovation isn't even happening at the hardware level - it's happening at the computational photography level. (Google was crushing this 5 years ago - they had had "auto awesome" that used AI techniques to automatically remove wrinkles, whiten teeth, add vignetting, etc... but recently Google has fallen back).
Yep, computational photography (and high-quality post-processing in general) is just as, if not more important than top-tier camera hardware specs in 2017. But for someone like Gundotra to say Google has "fallen back" on computational photography is wrong to the point of voluntary ignorance.
Google's own Pixel phone is a case study on how to use computational photography to reach new heights in mobile imaging. The Pixel's HDR+ mode, in development while Gundotra was still as Google as part of the Gcam project, is the very thing he claims Android can't do because of its various limitations. The same applies to multi-frame photography on the Samsung Galaxy S8 and HDR Boost on the HTC U11: computational photography is more than alive and well on Android, it is thriving.
Forget DxOMark scores — many independent photo comparisons, including our own, have placed Android phones with computational photography features, like the Pixel, U11 and Galaxy S8, ahead of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.
What's more, outside of smartphone photography, Google is pushing ahead with impressive vision-based systems like Google Lens, announced at this year's I/O keynote. At the same event, we saw cutting-edge demos combining AI and computational photography, where a wire fence could be intelligently removed from a photo of a kid playing baseball.
Gundotra was still at Google while it was pioneering HDR+ through the Gcam project.
Google certainly isn't slowing down, let alone falling back on this kind of thing. For someone who was around when Google was pioneering all this stuff to suggest other wise is just... well, weird.
Apple doesn't have all these constraints. They innovate in the underlying hardware, and just simply update the software with their latest innovations (like portrait mode) and ship it.
Kinda true — Apple controls the entire hardware and software stack — but this is an oversimplification. Portrait mode is never coming to older iPhones, because the hardware can't support it. The "latest innovations" still have to operate within the restrictions of each iPhone's hardware, and broadly speaking there's been no great change in photo quality on iPhones with new iOS releases. (Portrait mode arriving shortly after the 7 Plus's launch is the exception that proves the rule.)
Bottom line: If you truly care about great photography, you own an iPhone. If you don't mind being a few years behind, buy an Android.
In 2013, maybe.
Today, there's no shortage of options if you truly care about great smartphone photography. The iPhone is one of the top offerings. There are many Android phones that can match or even beat it, and many include computational photography features just as impressive as the images Vic Gundotra showcased in his Facebook post.
Far from Android being a few years behind on photography, it seems that it's Gundotra's view of the OS, and the phones that run it, that's out of date.
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