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On 'Chinese knockoffs' and why Leica works with Xiaomi
It's past time to start taking Chinese phones seriously, whether you've used one or not
Xiaomi launched its new 14 Pro flagship phone in China last week, including a Leica-branded camera system under a partnership that began last year. Here's some commentary I saw from a couple of prominent folk based in the US.
It’s absolutely bizarre to me that Leica values its brand so little that it lets Chinese companies put their logo on iPhone knock-offs.
John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who needs no introduction:
I don’t know what I find more surprising: that the shameless rip-off artists at Xiaomi didn’t just skip a number and call this the “15 Pro”, or that Leica is willing to have anything to do with them. (Xiaomi’s checks cash, I guess.)
I think de With is a great designer and photographer, and I've been a fan of Gruber's writing since getting my first Mac 20 years ago, so I give both the benefit of the doubt here. They're basically saying they don't understand the partnership, which is fair enough.
But these are unfortunate takes nonetheless. Describing Xiaomi as “Chinese knock-offs” or “rip-off artists” in 2023 shows a lack of understanding of the company and the broader phone market outside the United States.
I wrote a long feature for The Verge on this topic in 2018, based on several trips to China and countless interviews along the way. Gruber was complimentary when he linked to it, which I appreciated. I think the piece more or less holds up, and if anything the rapid improvement in Chinese hardware quality over the past five years means I'd make most of the same points in a stronger way today.
The basic thesis of the feature, which was titled "How China rips off the iPhone and reinvents Android", was that Chinese phone manufacturers develop their products for people with very different needs and wants to those in the West. These companies are all essentially forced to develop their own operating system atop open-source Android because of the lack of Google services in China, but the domestic dominance of "super app" WeChat and the popularity of custom themes makes it harder — or even less desirable — to develop a standout style of their own.
Unlike the US, the Chinese phone market is extremely competitive from top to bottom. At the high end you have Apple, of course, then there are Android options from Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, and Vivo, all of which make legitimately excellent hardware at this point. Those four companies all have full portfolios of flagship phones, including folds and flips, and they also offer solid options at entry level and the midrange.
What this means is it's really easy to switch phones in China. If you have an iPhone in the US, you're likely locked into iMessage, but in China that's a non-factor because of WeChat. If you have a Samsung phone in the US, meanwhile, your only other real high-end options are niche players like Google and OnePlus. Smartphone users in China — and there are more than a billion of them — can hop from Xiaomi to Apple to Huawei with much less friction.
What that means is that it makes sense for there to be a degree of familiarity in the user interface across manufacturers' software, including iOS. Remember, they're essentially building these versions of Android from scratch. I'm not at all saying it isn't fair to describe certain UI elements as "ripped off", because they plainly have been — I pointed out in the Verge feature how every Android camera app was (and still is) lifted directly from iOS 7. But there's a point where this is just pragmatic.
Xiaomi had an important role to play here. The company actually started out making Android phone software well before it even shipped a device; the first version of its MIUI skin was based on Android 2.2 and released as a ROM for phones like the Google Nexus One and the HTC Desire.
Here's a video from 2010:
You may notice that it looks, well, pretty much exactly like iOS 4. But what made MIUI take off in popularity was that it was smooth and efficient, far more so than many manufacturers' own skins. Back then an iOS ripoff could be more palatable to hardcore Android fans than, say, HTC Sense or Samsung TouchWiz.
Xiaomi exploded in popularity after it started shipping its own phones, becoming a full-on lifestyle brand with ubiquitous stores that are as reminiscent of Muji as Apple. Huawei's consumer division quickly ramped up in technical expertise and launched pioneering phone camera technology. BBK-owned Oppo, OnePlus, and Vivo leveraged supply chain dominance to target various parts of the market. It’s fair to say that original UI design was not the forte of any of these companies. It’s equally fair to say it probably shouldn’t have been their priority.
I don't think de With meant it this way, but to highlight Xiaomi as a "Chinese" company when dismissing its products as "knock-offs" evokes an outdated stereotype. Is what Xiaomi does any more shameless than US companies like Meta lifting Stories from Snapchat — or more pertinently, Reels from TikTok? When Google directly copied iOS' gesture navigation after iterating on a bunch of worse versions, I didn't hear anyone lamenting a dearth of American creativity.
And it's not like Apple hasn't lifted features directly from Android. Sometimes it waits to do them better, like the always-on screen; sometimes it's just late, like the notification shade and swipe-to-type.
Do I understand why software designers might think it's weak that Chinese phone makers have never broken out and developed their own truly unique, successful design language? Sure. But it's simply not important to most of the people who buy these phones. There's plenty of software innovation on a feature basis in China. What matters more than anything, though, is that the core software is functional, familiar, and well-suited to its audience.
That brings me to hardware, and why Leica would work with Xiaomi as a partner. Leica is undeniably an aspirational brand for a lot of Chinese consumers. What it sees in Xiaomi is a popular, accessible domestic brand that puts out quality products, particularly when it comes to camera hardware. What Xiaomi gets in return is a high-end brand that can genuinely differentiate the camera experience on its phones.
This isn't the first time Leica has lent its name to phones; it's had partnerships with Sharp and Huawei in the past, albeit with much less collaboration on the actual image processing. I should also note Leica has long had a deal with Panasonic where it sticks its red-dot logo on lightly rebranded compact cameras and sells them for a huge markup. This Xiaomi partnership is far more substantial.
The Xiaomi 13 Ultra, Xiaomi's latest flagship, has by far my favourite smartphone camera system I've ever used. The hardware blows Apple's away on a technical level, and Leica's colour tuning is much more natural and sophisticated. If you want to talk about bad software taste, let's talk about how for years Apple has shipped iPhones that take lifeless, contrast-free HDR photos with artificially brightened subjects. (I do think the 15 Pro is a significant improvement in that regard; belated review soon.)
For the sake of brevity, you can read more on the 13 Ultra below and see a bunch of samples. It remains my current camera of choice, phone or otherwise.
I've been a Mac user for two decades, I'm all-in on a bunch of Apple services, and I think the iPad Pro and Apple Watch are clearly the best products in their categories. It would make my life a lot easier if I thought the iPhone was unequivocally the best phone out there in every regard. Unfortunately, that simply isn't true. I still buy one every year, but Apple is nowhere close to rendering its smartphone competition irrelevant. That's why I usually have an iPhone in one pocket and a 13 Ultra (or a Pixel 8 Pro, or an Oppo Find N3, or...) in the other.
Gruber and de With don't use these phones extensively or at all. That's fine, of course — it's not Gruber's beat, and de With's company is built on the App Store. (I really do recommend Halide to anyone serious about iPhone photography — it's a fantastic app, particularly if you're up for processing RAWs.) Very few people are weirdos like me who try out double-digit phones every year. But it does mean you should take any claims about global iPhone supremacy with the appropriate amount of seasoning if they're coming from someone who only ever uses iPhones.
Here's a quote from Gruber's recap of the September iPhone event this year:
iPhone cameras aren’t behind the state-of-the-art for phone photography, of course — they’re probably the best, and undeniably among the best.
Well, I definitely don't think the 14 Pro Max was the best. Undeniably among the best? What does that mean — among every smartphone in the world? I guess so, sure. Among high-end phones in the US? Okay, but there are like three of those. Among high-end phones in the world? No.
This is subjective to a degree, but it's certainly deniable. I personally would have ranked the 14 Pro Max near or at the bottom of a list of global flagships released in the past 18 months, and I don't know many people who've used more phones than me. Those I do know would agree.
As for hardware design, we're way past the point where these companies can be accused either of ripping off Apple or failing to match it in quality. Xiaomi, Oppo, and others have established their own design languages, and their premium phones are as well-made as anything else out there.
Gruber specifically linked to the special edition titanium version of the Xiaomi 14 Pro. While I don't think the overall design of that phone justifies calling Xiaomi "shameless rip-off artists", I do think it's worth highlighting this titanium model, because I assume part of his point was (quite reasonably) comparing it to the newly titanium-forged iPhone 15 Pro. This variant will only ship in tiny quantities and no, I don't think it would exist if Apple hadn't been rumoured to be moving to titanium this year.
That's because Apple is genuinely a trendsetter. I don't think that's a gotcha at all. Apple undeniably has a higher brand value than any other tech company in the world, and Chinese phone makers are nimble enough to move with the trends, just as Uniqlo and Zara are able to shift their colours and materials from season to season. Why wouldn't they? This is ultimately a cosmetic aspect of the phone and Xiaomi is more than capable of competing on its own merits.
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Leica partnered with Xiaomi because Xiaomi paid it a bunch of money, obviously. But I really don't think there'd be any need to hold its collective nose over this deal in Wetzlar. Xiaomi makes damn good phones with damn good cameras and it's a widely respected brand outside of the US, including in Europe. Surely it's far more embarrassing to stick your logo on a mediocre Panasonic point-and-shoot and charge DSLR money for it, even if that company isn't Chinese?
The same is true of similar deals like the ones between Hasselblad and Oppo, or Zeiss and Vivo. Branding is a big part of it, of course, and I don't think the impact on image quality is quite as significant or collaborative as it's proven to be with Leica and Xiaomi. But ultimately these companies also put out very good phone cameras and implement their partner's heritage in fun, clever ways, from the virtual Zeiss lenses in Vivo's portrait mode to the X-Pan panoramas on Oppo phones.
If you buy a Leica-branded Xiaomi flagship phone today, whether it's the 13 Pro or 13 Ultra, you're getting one of the best phone cameras in the world. As someone who tests the heck out of these things, I really don't think that's been true of the iPhone in the last few years — you've just been getting one of the best phone cameras in the US.
No-one is an expert on everything, least of all me. That's why one of my guiding principles is that when companies do something I don't understand, I try to imagine the upside rather than assuming I know better than their CEO. Does anyone really think Leica is recklessly torpedoing its century-plus history, legacy, and brand value by partnering with Xiaomi?
Well, that's why I'm writing this. I suspect if people thought about that notion for a while, and read up on the Chinese phone market, and heck, maybe even used a Leica-Xiaomi phone for a solid amount of time, they'd understand a little better. This Leica collaboration is a big reason why, in my experienced opinion, Xiaomi phones now take better photos than the iPhone. I think that's worth reflecting on.