Google Android, Samsung, My Photos And Linux
My mighty struggle to get the pictures off of my phone.
I have been using Linux for 12 years now. Specifically, I’ve been using Ubuntu, a very popular Linux distribution for people who want to make that transition away from Mac and PC.
I’ve had smartphones for about that long, too. My first smartphone was the Palm Treo. I got the first G1 Android smartphone when it came out. And since that time, I’ve noticed that the effort required to get the pictures off of my phone and onto a hard disk has climbed steeply. Now that I have a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone, there is a wall between my Ubuntu machine and the pictures on my phone.
In the beginning, it was easy. I could connect my phone to my computer and access the file system just like any USB drive. I could navigate to the folder where the pictures were kept and use my picture manager on Ubuntu, Shotwell, to copy, sort and organize my pictures. This has worked well until right about the time that Microsoft decided that Linux infringes on more than 200 of their patents. And of course, Microsoft has been and still is very mum about which patents they’re talking about, even after declaring a truce and joining the Open Invention Network.
Now maybe that’s a coincidence, I don’t really know for sure. But it sure seems to me like they went to every phone maker and did their level best to cajole them into installing Microsoft Office for Android on their phones upon threat of a long and expensive lawsuit.
So without native support for file system access for my phone, I fished around for solutions. I tried downloading all of my photos to my computer and then sorting them. But my operating system would give them a new timestamp and that makes sorting them by date a bear because programs like Shotwell sorts by date.
Shotwell, in the default configuration, will sort pictures into folders by date, month and year. So I have a nice folder tree, nested by year, month and date. I like that form of organization. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to sort them by file name. So if the timestamp is incorrect, then sorting the pictures by date becomes very difficult.
Even if I were to sort them by file name, I’ve noticed that the file naming convention has changed over the years, and differs by camera. Each camera uses a different way to name the file by date and serialize each file name for more than one photo taken in a day. There is no default standard.
With an Android phone, the pictures are immediately backed up to the cloud, to Google Photos. At one point not too long ago, the camera pictures were stored in Google Drive. This is a useful distinction as I found myself poking around again on this topic just a few nights ago, and found that there are “Online Accounts” in Ubuntu, that allow the operating system to interact with Google Drive as if it were a local drive. This is very cool.
Once I figured out how to make that connection with Online Accounts in Ubuntu, I was able to navigate to Google Drive just like a local drive. I found several thousand pictures there, and thankfully, when I copied them to the /tmp directory on my computer, the timestamp, the time the photo was taken, was preserved. So I was able to copy and sort those pictures, OK.
Still, I could not access Google Photos with the Online Accounts feature of Ubuntu. I needed yet another way to get to my photos because Google Drive and Google Photos were now separate storage spaces, both counting against the storage space on my Google Account.
As I poked around some more, I found that there is a client for Google Photos for both Windows and Mac. But nothing for Linux. Now I could use that client to backup my photos to the hard drive on a Windows or Mac computer, but then I still face the issue of timestamps. If I can zip the resulting backups of my photos on the Mac and unzip the same zip file on my Ubuntu machine while preserving the timestamps, that’d be nice. And I think I could do that. But by now, you can see just how far afield I have gone without proper Linux support from the tech giants that sell the stuff I use.
This is a callout to Google and Samsung, and all the other Android phone makers out there. You have a small contingent of Linux users out there and I am one of them. We buy your phones. We expect to get access to the content we create with your phones. We seem to have been forgotten by you when it comes to our pictures and videos.
If you make an Android phone, you use Linux. You have websites and servers that are running Linux. All of Google's infrastructure runs on Linux. Every device that Google sells runs on Linux. Every device that Samsung sells also runs on Linux. Cameras, phones, TVs, tablets, and even watches, they all run Linux.
Samsung and Google are very powerful companies. They are big enough to make a Linux client to access their photos and not miss the money. If Google can make the Chrome browser run on Linux, like the one that I’m typing this article on right now, then Google has the resources to make a Debian package that installs a Google Photos client.
Likewise, with Samsung. Samsung is big enough to create a Linux client that can access the pictures created by the camera on my phone so that I can get at my pictures and copy them to my hard drive. They could even write source code that does the job and release it to the Shotwell team or any other group that wants to make such a client. They could also release an open-source driver for the Linux kernel that reads the application programming interface for their phones so that any Linux distribution can read the file system on the phone and access the photos that are on it.
There is so much that could be done by these giant companies to help users like me to just get access to our photos without making us spend hours searching for a solution that works for us. They should be willing to support Linux. And I should be able to buy a product without a subtle message telling me that I need a computer with either of the other two dominant operating systems out there to get access to the content I create.