Open source is, to some, the biggest advantage to using Android – allowing an arguably limitless potential in a garden with no walls. However it is also one of Android’s biggest detractors, with open source comes an open playing field for malware, piracy and everything inbetween. Unfortunately the downsides don’t stop there for those touting the most Googley of handsets, the Nexus line – because open source is the reason you may never have a great camera on your phone.
Stock Android is great, its clean, fast and actually looks pretty good now material design has replaced what was once gingerbread orange or dull black and blue. For the Nexus especially, stock Android is so pure it is as if Marias Duarte had blessed each and every one – and it was always one of the first to get the updates. It brought with it a full factory image should things go wrong and also AOSP source code meaning you could build whatever you liked on top of Google’s code.
AOSP code isn’t always a god send though, it has caused issues with factory images and long time scales for releasing code for past Nexus’. Some proprietary code has caused so much friction in the past even the godfather of AOSP Jean-Baptiste “JBQ” Quéru packed his things and left for Yahoo. This holy grail of Nexus users is also the reason that a Nexus just can’t compete in the camera market.
Now the Nexus 6 camera is ‘ok’ – but it doesn’t compete on the same level as even some mid range phones from other manufacturers. You can praise the megapixel count and the sensor as much as you like but the quality of your images comes down to post processing. The magic sauce that turns all those light signals to an image on your screen – a sauce that is so secret it will never appear in an open source.
Image processing is what takes a good picture (or even an average one) and makes it great. Developed over years of industry involvement and kept under close guard as much as possible. Its like the ingredients in KFC coating or the reason everything else just doesn’t taste like Coke.
Some companies choose to develop their own versions in order to produce results that they require, some do it well and some not so well (I’m looking at you Motorola). Others choose to buy in the knowledge and knowhow through licensing – and some do a mixture of both. Unfortunately in the smartphone game some companies such as Sony and Samsung have a distinct advantage. Being attached to sister companies that specifically develop camera software.
So when people get all excited about LG making the next Nexus and pray for a camera that can take images like the G4, think back to the Nexus 4 and 5. Neither of these handsets lived up to their OEM cousin’s ability either. There is simply no way any company will give away top notch image processing software in open source code for all to see. Not to mention they would much rather you buy a phone directly from them!
Would Nexus users sacrifice source code for a better performing camera? Difficult to say, but there was a delay in working source for the Nexus 4 due to radio software and users threw all the toys out the pram – so it unlikely many would tolerate a complete loss. Google have also turned to cloud processing instead, titled ‘auto awesome’ Google wants a server to produce the best from each image instead of the phone itself.
It has also been suggested that Google could also adopt a similar stance to Sony and place the proprietary code into a separate partition, so there are hopes. I’m crossing my fingers for a really great Nexus, I’m not fussed who makes it – but please don’t hold your breath.
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