It's past time to start taking Chinese phones seriously, whether you've used one or not
I am one of the 'knock-off' critics in the post and I am delighted with the nuance of the opinion from the author.
I do not agree, however, with the premise that originality is a tradeoff that can readily be abandoned because it is not 'relevant' to end users. Xiaomi and Huawei got started making actual clones of iPhones. This is changing somewhat on a hardware level, but the software ('HyperOS' on Xiaomi's latest) is still blatantly copying design down to the details. I am not talking about individual items, general direction or inspiration: I am talking down-to-the-corner-radius, replicated-animations exacting reproductions of iOS UI and features.
Of course Leica, Zeiss and Hasselblad get more than just cash out of these partnerships: They hope to remain relevant in an era where photography is largely becoming the sole domain of smartphones, with dedicated cameras become a niche market. They need the cash more than ever, and have no doubt made meaningful contributions to the products (I love the examples: Xpan was a legendary camera and Xpan mode is really neat). The issue I pointed out in my tweet (sorry, X post? whatever it goes by now) is that Leica is a brand with a tremendous amount of integrity. They just released the first camera with 'content credentials' to verify authenticity of photos from moment of capture; they do not compromise on their 100-year old line of rangefinder cameras and prune their brand and associations extremely carefully.
It becomes remarkable to then see the logo featured prominently on a device that doesn't just draw inspiration from upmarket competition, but blatantly copies it to such an exact level that it'd be flat out illegal to have on the market in the United States.
In design, I am all too familiar with two constant issues that come up: one is the claim that no design can be original anymore, as everything is rapidly becoming inspired by other things and prior art on some level always exists. While it is true, and the most important advice I offer aspiring designers is that they should copy and imitate the design they love best, it is often misused as a (very poor) defense of plagiarism. The key to ‘great artists steal’ is that stealing is finding what makes something so exceptional, learning to reproduce it and understanding the magic behind what made it excellent in the first place. Tech reviewers that fail to address this, and apologists of the Chinese-Android-OEMs repeated copycat behavior see my critique as one of principle, when it is really one that is far more nuanced. By accepting this as an acceptable behavior, companies fail to compete and innovate to make usability and interfaces meaningfully better. They rob customers and the marketplace at large of huge leaps in technology by following the market leader and hoping to gain marketshare through fast following. It’s bad, it’s sad, and we all deserve better. And Apple needs the competition desperately.
The second issue that is often raised in design is that the details don’t matter, because the customer doesn’t notice them. Arguably, if that’s the case, all the work that went into the iPhone X’s gestural navigation, the design work of the Dynamic Island, Apple’s insistency on color-accurate P3 gamut screens and custom San Francisco typeface are all irrelevant. Yet, there’s a reason this level of craft matters. Not all users notice it; but some do. We could easily say that we ought to dedicate our resources to live in a world where we strive to make all things ‘good enough’ and put the rest of our efforts in other pursuits. But I delight in the kind of marketplace of creative ideas that rewards excellence and achieving incredible results. I love exceptional, original, and absurdly detail oriented work, because it’s magical. It creates products and designs that become timeless, and makes the world a better place.
It’s interesting that the author quotes Facebook and its atrocious copy-cat behavior with apps. For a long time, Facebook attempted to snuff out competition by either acquiring it, or blatantly copying it — down to the actual iconography, exactly like these Chinese phone makers. I have been a vocal and intense Facebook hater on Twitter for this exact reason, because there’s not nearly enough flak being thrown their way by the tech press. If it’s a clone, a blatant rip-off, we should call it by its name.
Notably, though, Facebook succeeded not because it copied these emerging competitors’ features and UI: it succeeded when it *diverged* from them. It succeeded when it made Stories better in Instagram than they were in Snapchat, and when Threads combined algorithmic discovery, powerful friend finding and better design compared to Twitter’s extremely poor experience for average users. It created real competition when they diverged, and forced innovation in a market that stagnated with incumbents.
When it comes to hardware, Xiaomi is already at that point. Now they have to shake loose from a culture that seemingly believes it can only succeed through copying design language and details. Samsung is almost there. I really hope that through being a vocal critic and pointing out the shameless parts can actually motivate these companies to do better, even if it’s just in our markets.
I liked this one. I’m Canadian, but you can definitely see a bit of a split in the smartphone world between the US (and, by splash damage, Canada) and the rest of the world. Going by my “what are people on the subway using?” metric, characterizing it as basically “iPhone or Samsung, with a few niche Android players” is accurate. I’m a happy iPhone user, but I do have a general interest in phones, so it’s become pretty obvious to me that North America is really only experiencing a small slice of the Android pie. By the numbers, we’re the ones isolated from the rest of the world. It’s hard not to see some of these takes as American-centric, and likely tinged with broader geopolitical tensions.