Former Google researcher and Stanford professor emeritus Marc Levoy joined Adobe this week. We don’t tend to cover the career trajectories of most executives, but this hire is more interesting than simply Levoy’s title change from “distinguished engineer” at Google to “vice president and fellow” at Adobe. That’s because Levoy is credited with using AI and software to turn Google’s Pixel camera into the standard to beat. At Adobe, his computational photography skills will be “centered on the concept of a universal camera app,” the company told the Verge.
Computational photography uses machine learning and AI to augment the raw optical input of an image capture process. It’s what enables dark nighttime photos to look as if they were shot in bright sunlight, an innovation Google called Night Sight, or lets a smartphone take DSLR-style “portrait mode” images with blurred backgrounds.
During his time at Google, Levoy helped Pixel phones take excellent photos using less hardware than the competition, using ML to deliver features such as those above, as well as HDR+, Photobooth, and Top Shot. In October 2019, he roasted Apple‘s marketing chief Phil Schiller’s breathless “mad science” description of computational photography, downplaying his own work as “just simple physics.” But thanks to Levoy’s team, Pixels could famously pull off feats with a single camera as Apple’s iPhones or Samsung’s Galaxy phones could do with two. Starting with the Pixel 3 though, Google conceded that AI alone wasn’t enough. Nonetheless, Google’s Pixel phones continue to be the company’s preferred way of showcasing its AI chops, which always puts the camera front and center.
What does ‘universal’ mean?
We have no idea what a “universal camera app” refers to, because Adobe won’t say. “Universal” may simply refer to “for everyone.” But we know what a “camera app” is. In fact, Adobe already makes one: Photoshop Camera for Android and iOS. Here is Adobe’s official description:
Adobe Photoshop Camera is a free, intelligent camera app that lets you add the best filters and effects for your photos — before you even take the shot. Show off your unique style with tons of Insta-worthy lenses and filters inspired by your favorite artists and influencers. And with no Photoshop skills needed, it’s easy to share your world — your way.
When you launch Photoshop Camera, however, the first thing you’re presented with is a sign-in screen. It’s not exactly a replacement for the camera app you already use on your phone. Adobe could be building a mainstream camera app for every mobile user, not just “creators.” The goal would likely be to widen the funnel it uses to upsell Creative Cloud subscriptions — the general purpose of all Adobe’s mobile apps.
Given that Levoy helped create the Google Camera app, it’s easy to assume that’s what he would be tasked with building at Adobe. A Google Camera app that isn’t limited to just Pixel phones, or even to Android phones, sounds killer. What non-Pixel user wouldn’t want to benefit from the computational photography wins we’ve seen come out of Google over the past five years? And yet, this would be incredibly difficult to pull off. I don’t mean from a technical perspective, nor because Adobe has no control of the hardware. I mean simply because of the state of the mobile market.
The Android and iOS duopoly
Adobe’s camera app would have to be significantly better to succeed. And even if it somehow became the top of the pack, besting pre-installed camera apps from leaders Apple, Google, Samsung, and even Huawei, it would take a lot more than just marketing to get users to switch.
Beyond Photoshop Camera, there are countless camera apps for Android and iOS. And yet, how many people do you know that use a different mobile camera app than the one that came with their phone?
Apple doesn’t let you set the default camera app on iOS. One day, that might change — after all, iOS 14 is going to finally allow setting your default browser and email apps. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for the iPhone camera app, which relies on tight integration with the operating system to launch as quickly as possible, something Apple has underscored as critically important for photography.
Google has always been more flexible with Android. Under the “Default apps” settings page, you can set your default Assist, Browser, Caller ID & Spam, Home, Phone, and SMS apps, but not the camera app. Sure, Android manufacturers can pick their own camera app, but users can’t easily override which app launches when they use their phone’s built-in gestures, physical camera buttons, or shortcuts. There are workarounds — because it’s Android — but Google doesn’t offer a straightforward default option.
Adobe is going to struggle to one-up Apple and Google. First, Adobe can’t outspend them. Second, it’s not in Apple’s nor Google’s interest to let Adobe have the default camera app on their platforms. And third, tech giants are known to hold grudges — Apple won’t easily forget Levoy’s jab, and Google is Levoy’s former employer.
Antitrust and competition
Like all discussions that involve innovation on Android and iOS, this one also quickly raises the antitrust question. The problem of defaults on these mobile platforms, not to mention that the only way onto iOS is through Apple’s App Store, makes many potential app businesses nonstarters. (Coincidentally, it appears the tech CEO hearing scheduled for next week will be postponed.)
More competition in the mobile camera app space would be a wonderful thing. Who wouldn’t want the choice of Apple’s camera app, Google Camera, and Adobe Camera regardless of the phone they purchased? You could pick and choose the one you prefer, set it as the default, and swap it whenever the competition released something compelling.
Maybe an Apple camera app is unimaginable outside of iOS. But at the very least, Adobe’s move into the space could push Google to release its camera app for non-Pixel Android phones, and maybe even the iPhone. If and when Google makes such a move would be incredibly telling. Doing it sooner rather than later could ensure Adobe’s efforts were dead on arrival. Not doing anything at all would indicate what Google thinks of Adobe’s chances.
Either way, good luck, Mark Levoy.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.