Smartphone partisans regularly go back and forth on the merits of iPhones or Google Android, debating about individual hardware and software features on social media. But a recent conversation on smartphone quality has drawn additional interest thanks to its source: former Google executive Vic Gundotra.
On Facebook, Gundotra recently posted a handful of photos from his iPhone 7 using the phone’s portrait mode and complimented the quality of Apple’s engineering. But in response to a comment saying that the Samsung Galaxy S8’s camera was even better, Gundotra argued that Android was “a few years” behind the iPhone in camera technology.
Here’s Gundotra’s full post:
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.
Gundotra’s criticism of Android and his former employer — he left in 2015 to be CEO at health startup AliveCor — echos common complaints about Android’s fragmentation and the speed for upgrades.
For Google, Android historically has had to juggle many competing requirements and needs from the various manufacturers who use the operating system to power their phones. Especially in past situations where Google had pushed major Android improvements, many of these companies had to weigh the upsides of vetting the updates versus their potential cost. This process often takes considerable time and in many cases for smaller companies or less popular smartphone models, they’d often choose to abandon updates entirely for users. As a result, fragmentation remains a considerable hurdle for Google and Android. According to Google, only 11.5 percent of phones are running Nougat, the latest version of Android.
In recent years, Google has made strides to be more hands-on with their phone releases — the company has revamped how updates get pushed to carriers and jumped back into hardware with the Pixel smartphone series. In particular, reviewers praised the Pixel’s camera upon its release last fall.
Against Apple, which directly controls its hardware, software and production processes, Google will likely have to fight to remain nimble. As Gundotra points out, Apple can simply add new hardware to its phones and push software updates out. But as with Google’s struggles with software fragmentation, the company has more hurdles to jump over when it wants to push similarly major hardware updates.
In the coming months, both platforms look to remain competitive in the camera hardware race. Apple is expected to drop the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7S series later this year. The company’s flagship smartphone release has been rumored to include a vertical dual-camera system that could produce higher-quality images and potentially help support enhanced augmented reality support in iOS 11.
Similarly, Google is rumored to be working on the Pixel 2 ahead of a potential fall release. Elsewhere among other upcoming high-profile Android smartphone releases, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 may include a similar dual-camera setup that would produce better-quality images thanks to improved detection technology.