I’ve made no secret of my deep and passionate love affair with the camera inside Google’s Pixel. The phone itself is nothing special, but the pictures I take with it are a whole new level of awesome that I’ve never previously experienced with any mobile device. So spending the week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and exploring a whole fresh wave of Android smartphones, the only thing I could think was "if only this thing had the Pixel’s camera."
Oppo, for example, has a gorgeous red R9s limited edition that I would gladly lust after if I knew its camera were as good as Google Pixel’s. Huawei’s P10 is a very nicely designed phone, but I have my doubts it has the best mobile camera around. And LG’s G6 is practically the blueprint for what I desire from an ideal smartphone, which is why I’m afraid to even try its camera, lest it reveals itself to be less awesome than the Pixel’s. But here’s the thing: they all could have the same class of camera inside them. All it would take is Google giving away its camera algorithms in the same way that it gives away the core of Android for device manufacturers to build on top of.
I’m not saying this is a commercially advisable idea for Google. It probably isn’t, given that the Pixel’s camera is the big differentiator on which the Mountain View company is seeking to build its own line of devices. But would it be a cool thing to happen? Absolutely!
I imagine myself walking through an alternate-reality Mobile World Congress where every Android handset has an assured level of software and camera quality. Then I could give in to my most base instincts and just pick the prettiest one among them and make it my next smartphone. And, seriously, there are some beautiful phones on display these days. The Noa smartphones, from a small Croatian company making its MWC debut, looked good with zero side bezels and a particularly beautiful red option (yes, okay, I’m partial to red).
Here’s my understanding of the magic behind the Google Pixel’s camera: it relies on the traditional necessities of a good sensor and optics and is helped by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor. But it is most critically reliant on Google’s ingenious mathematicians who’ve worked out an excellent always-on HDR mode and new ways to reduce image noise that others have yet to match. The sensor, from Sony, is an off-the-shelf part that BlackBerry is using in its just-announced KeyOne handset. Ditto the Pixel’s Snapdragon 821 processor — everyone has access to it and the optimizations that Google and Qualcomm worked on together. So the only missing component is Google’s software.
Google has always argued that it wants to do its best to support the Android ecosystem. It has presented itself as the partner and supporter of every Android manufacturer. But as of today, Google is undermining MWC debutants simply by having the best mobile camera tech all to itself. Granted, the Pixel’s distribution and marketing still leave it as a niche device for now, but it’s acting essentially like an iPhone — dampening enthusiasm for the newest and shiniest Android phones by virtue of its superior technology.
If Google absolutely wants to see Android triumph over Apple’s iPhone and iOS, it wouldn’t be that crazy to just give away its camera software and make sure that all Android devices, at least at the premium tier, benefit from a consistently excellent camera. Sure, there’ll always be room for Google’s hardware partners to ignore or spoil its work, but on the whole, I think they are rational enough to just deploy the same algorithms as Google’s and reap the benefits of having superior tech.
Now, I’m conscious that Android OEM execs are probably shaking their heads bitterly at this point, thinking they need to be different in order to stand out. But being different from the Pixel is precisely what’s stopping me from spending any money on their devices right now. There’s one king of the Android realm, one device (in two sizes) that guarantees the best long-term software and most awesome photos today. Google could choose to spread the wealth and make the mobile world exponentially more interesting. Or it could — as it’s quite entitled to do — keep building its Pixel line on the strength of its superb image processing.
All I’m saying is that from the consumer’s perspective, and for those of us looking for a more thrilling and dynamic tech business, Google giving away its camera software would be the most fun and exciting change we’ve seen in a long time.