GCam mod on OnePlus 7 proves why Google should be licensing this technology but it’s not going to happen

Google’s camera trickery is what makes its Pixel smartphones special. But while most smartphones have a multitude of lenses and a litany of modes, Google’s camera system is seemingly quite rudimentary with just a single camera and a very clean app yet manages to churn out incredible pictures, better than any other smartphone. What’s fascinating is that Android enthusiasts have managed to transpose this app on many other phones covering a wide gamut of devices, having different hardware configurations ranging from silicon to optics and yet yielding massively enhanced imaging results than stock camera applications that the phones have been shipped with.

More recently, I tested the Google camera app on two phones — Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 7 Pro and the new OnePlus 7. Both these phones have Sony’s new IMX 586 48-megapixel sensor replete with an f/1.7 lens and optical image stabilization. Price wise, the difference between the two phones is night and day. One maxes out at Rs 16,999 while the other starts at Rs 32,999.

Of course, the variance in the price comes through multiple features like the display, battery size, RAM, memory, what’s there in the front camera and the silicon which also directly impacts camera performance apart from other things.

The Snapdragon 675 is a mid-range chipset based off last years flagship the Snapdragon 845, while the Snapdragon 855 which finds a home in the OnePlus 7 is Qualcomm’s flagship SoC, furthering the cause of computational photography something that Google has championed with its Google Camera technology. What’s interesting here is that there is one phone which has a better processor than Google’s latest Pixel phone while the other is slightly inferior.

The performance is very close to the Google Pixel 3 save for minor issues which are more a side effect that this app was modded by the Android community for a third party device rather than released by Google.

But the end results are incredible. The Google camera app represents a dramatic improvement in base level image quality for both these phones. While for the Redmi Note 7 Pro image quality isn’t much of a problem considering its price point, it’s a grave issue for the OnePlus 7 which has been dubbed as a flagship level performer but its image quality has left most people wanting so much so, that some consider the image quality to even lacking the much cheaper Redmi Note 7 Pro.

Clearly, the problem isn’t in the image sensor which has been deployed by other manufacturers like Honor to great effect using a wildly different processor to great effect in the View 20.

The problem is in the processing. That’s what Google has cracked. The way the GCam app processes images are very different from what other manufacturers are able to achieve. Its secret is held in Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities and the way it has trained algorithms to detect scenes and handle white balance, contrast, dynamic range and low light situations.

This brings me to my argument that Google should actually offer this as a paid app on the Play Store or it should license it to smartphone OEMs just the way Google’s other coveted cloud services are given away for free.

Why should Google offer its golden goose to the world?

  • The most obvious reason for this to happen is to make more money. Make no mistake, the GCam app is a premium experience, some would say a pro level camera experience considering it also provides access to computational RAW. A premium camera app like Filmic Pro which is used by filmmakers costs $14.99 plus an additional $9.99. Imagine even if a million people use this app at the same price. That’s almost $15 million in revenue.
  • But we know, Google’s scale works in billions of users not millions. If it starts licensing this tech to its Android licensees, then we could be looking at revenue that’s potentially in-excess of a billion dollars. There are more than 2 billion Android smartphones in the mix and even if this is offered to OEMs as a premium experience, Google could be looking at around 100 million devices using this technology which would certainly amount to more than a billion dollars in revenue even if Google subsidized the cost of GCam in the Android license for even less than $5 per device.
  • This also makes for a great business which could even offset the Pixel line of smartphones as they’ve not caught on the way the camera tech has been lauded. Google will not need to deal with developing hardware something it doesn’t specialize in and focus on software.
  • As Google’s Pixel line of devices hasn’t hit prime time, this could provide for another way to evolve the GCam technology as it gets dogfooded amongst more users than the Pixel line could ever hit in the next two-three years.
  • Google could also start work on evolving and adapting this technology for DSLR cameras which I suspect it already has. This could provide a transformational pathway for big cameras something the big camera players have been slow to evolve.
  • Google could find ways of working in collaboration with the camera sensor and lens makers like the way it had for the Pixel 3 to develop the Super Zoom capability. This, in essence, could turn it into an underlying technology provider for all kinds of cameras. Remember, Google also owns Nest which makes home security cameras, so it could have multiple touch points.
  • Google camera could also stop Instagram’s encroachment in smartphones. Already, on the Galaxy S10, Instagram is embedded in the main camera app. Instagram could be working on computational photography which could be Facebook’s gambit to take over imaging on Android. Google has already ceded ground to Facebook on social and instant messaging, it can’t afford it with photography because that’s going to trickle down and impact Google Photos and Drive to a certain degree.

But this utopian future is very unlikely to happen…

  • Perhaps the biggest reason Google wouldn’t do this is because of all the antitrust scrutiny it’s facing all across the world. Last year, the EU fined Google for its monopoly over the Android operating system which forces OEMs to license Google’s cloud services which are globally ubiquitous. GCam added to that suite or offered separately would likely expose it further.
  • In the US, a new antitrust investigation has been opened while even the Indian regulatory body is looking at opening an anti-competitive case against Google. That’s the very reason for the existence of Pixel smartphones, in case, Google is not allowed to license Android the way it is, it could still use the Pixel brand of smartphones to retain its dominance in search, digital advertising, YouTube and even a feature like the Google camera, as these phones are havens for them.
  • Google camera is the biggest selling feature of the Pixel line of smartphones. The moment it is democratized, it will squash Google’s effort towards building a unique differentiated smartphone unit.
  • Launching the app on the Google Play store will not be a viable business decision in Google’s eyes as it wouldn’t probably make enough money for it. Paid app users are already less on Android and getting the system level access on iOS to make the iPhone camera better would be highly unlikely.
  • As the world moves towards a more private internet, an ad-supported model will also not work especially on Apple’s iOS store, and even on the Google Play store as the app deals with imaging would raise eyebrows, so Google would do well to trend this safely.
  • Giving away the GCam would commoditise Android smartphones to lower price points which will further accelerate the slow down in the smartphone space. Google wouldn’t want that.

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Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta

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Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta

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