Earlier this year, I attended Xiaomi's Mi 5 launch event in Barcelona and was tickled by the delightfully geeky presentation. The company's slides were rich on arcane initialisms like DTI and UFS, and its pitch was unapologetically technical. Specs are good, Xiaomi seemed to be saying, and we have some of the best ones around. This earnest embrace of technology isn't limited to Xiaomi, however, as in the past couple of weeks its compatriots Huawei and Meizu have followed up with their own extravagant spec expositions. I like this approach because of the language it speaks.
There's a certain atmosphere of cynicism that tends to pervade smartphone spec discussions. "Feeds and speeds" is the pejorative phrase used to describe anything technical inside a phone that isn't immediately explainable. Every phone has a processor, a camera, a battery, and a display, so why bother detailing the nitty gritty detail of each — just tell me if it's good or not. That's not an unreasonable attitude to take, but it misses so much of the beauty (and frankly hard work) of technological development. I care and write about tech because I enjoy the sensation of progress. Every new thing, every new phone carries the potential and the implicit promise of change for the better.
Individual human beings don't live long enough to observe the process of natural evolution, but technological evolution works on a whole different scale and pace, and is a wonderful sight to behold for anyone paying attention. Just take the iPhone as an example: it didn't magically transform from a single, limited 3.5-inch device into a whole family of multifunctional pocket computers. It took years of gradual improvement, some missteps (like the iPhone 4 "Antennagate"), and a series of annual upgrades to bring Apple to its current position of smartphone preeminence.
I enjoyed Meizu's event today, just as I did Xiaomi's and Huawei's before it, because of how sincerely positive it was about technology. US companies and the two Korean giants Samsung and LG now seem almost embarrassed about reciting the specs of their devices. Yes, sure, we have all the latest hardware things, but let us tell you our Design Story or our Mission Statement or our Engineering Ethos. The Chinese companies' events are endearingly old school, feeling like they were composed by the actual engineers tasked with putting the devices together. Even in translated Chinese, the words of Meizu chief Aber Bai resonated with the passion of the scientists and technicians working behind the scenes on putting together his new Pro 6 flagship phone.
When I listen to Xiaomi's Hugo Barra explaining the rationale behind every spec, I become invested in the quest for improvement that his company and its engineers are pursuing. When I learn that Meizu took Sony's IMX230 camera module and rebuilt it to fit into a thinner profile, I grow to value the company's efforts and craft more highly.
There's an odd thing that happens as companies start marketing their products to a Western audience. The engineers either fade into the background or, as with Samsung's former mobile chief JK Shin, they're trotted out just for a measure of self-effacing humor: "I may not be the best public speaker," said Shin during Samsung's Galaxy S6 launch. "That's because my first language is engineering." In the place of technical details, companies start adding superfluous extras, such as the silly Henry Cavill endorsement that Huawei tacked on to the end of its otherwise very good P9 launch event in London.
I think we lose something (maybe not entirely tangible) when we adapt the presentation of technological products to the lowest-common-denominator audience. Apple obviously doesn't agree, and it set the tone for simplifying technology and making it seem less daunting — but maybe we've overcorrected. At the same Mobile World Congress where Xiaomi made me grin with joy at its no-nonsense deep dives into things like Deep Trench Isolation, LG was conducting a slow-motion car crash of an event for its new G5 flagship. The Korean company had hired a distinctly unlikeable actor to demonstrate all the various features of its new phone in a series of video skits. I was left scratching my head as to whether it was a form of self-parody or truly unintentional comedy of awkwardness. Whatever it was, it wasn't good.
I'm not intimately familiar with the priorities of Chinese consumers, but judging by the devices fashioned out by their local manufacturers, high specs remain highly desirable (along with the rising importance of distinctive and attractive design). Maybe it's easier for Meizu and Xiaomi to market themselves with a straightforward message to their national audience because that audience isn't yet jaded and cynical about technological advancements. But I still firmly believe that the message of real technological progress is a universally appealing one.
Raising my head above the diatribes and squabbles of online comments and forums, I see many people excited and fascinated by new technology. We shouldn't be afraid of the technical aspects of it, and we shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of accomplishing them either. I find it bemusing when people express dissatisfaction with a new device that's thinner, faster, more powerful, and longer-lasting than its predecessor, but happens to look the same. Don't you see that that's what's magical — fitting more into the same dimensions?
Sometimes we need to just pause for a moment, if only to appreciate exactly how fast we are going. As Chinese smartphone manufacturers are making more waves among English-speaking markets and cultures, their events give me the opportunity and the inspiration to contemplate how much work and ingenuity goes into making every single device. We are building technological marvels every day, and while it's cool and apt that we focus on their practical benefits, it's just as appropriate to acknowledge them simply as engineering achievements.
Talking phone design with Xiaomi's vice president