Vic Gundotra, a former Senior Vice President of Social at Google, says that he “would never use an Android phone for photos!” This declaration was sparked in the comments of a recent Facebook post of his, which was in praise of the iPhone 7’s computational photography (or, Portrait Mode) prowess. Here’s why he believes Google is behind Apple on this front, and why I believe he’s wrong.
Could it be the end of an era? According to Gundotra, the sun is setting on DSLR for most people and the future is mobile. After taking “stunning” portrait shots of his children at a restaurant with his mobile phone, an iPhone 7, he posted the photos to Facebook and declared “The end of the DSLR for most people has already arrived,” and that he “would NEVER buy an Android phone again if I cared about photography.” As someone who ran Google’s mobile efforts for years and was an engineering SVP, he has a lot of understanding of this subject. But why would an ex-Googler believe so strongly in Apple’s photography technology? He explains in a comment:
“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?
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 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).
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.
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.”
Theory vs practice
On the face of it, his argument about why Android phones are supposedly years behind is convincing. But let’s talk about results. Two Android phones still fared better overall than the iPhone in our most recent blind camera test across photos in a variety of environments. The Google Pixel, followed closely by the Samsung Galaxy S8, simply produced better shots than the iPhone 7 Plus, according to AndroidPIT readers’ votes.
The continued dominance of the Pixel, which was released six months before the Galaxy S8 and just a month after the iPhone 7 Plus, is due largely to software innovation rather than hardware. The camera app of the Pixel is full of enhancements – and it is proprietary, not freely available to Google’s competitors, unlike like the Pixel’s camera sensors or the mostly open Android operating system. So, Google has every reason to continue developing its computational photography innovations at full speed, just as unconstrained as Apple. Google’s competition, in the case of Samsung at least, seems to have no problem keeping up either, as the Galaxy S8 did almost as well as the Pixel in our test.