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There is no such thing as a Leica phone

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Camera companies are cashing in as cynically as celebrity endorsers

You don't have to walk far into London's trendy Shoreditch district before seeing a giant billboard featuring Hollywood stars Henry Cavill and Scarlett Johansson taking a selfie with Huawei's P9 smartphone. Next to their impeccably beautiful faces sits the iconic red Leica dot, accompanied by the words "co-engineered with Leica."

Now that's some star power, isn't it?

Two of the world's hottest actors and one of its greatest camera companies have come together, on a single banner, to proclaim their approval of a new smartphone. That Huawei P9 must be something pretty special.

The P9's camera isn't special (I've been reviewing the phone over the past couple of weeks) and it doesn't "reinvent smartphone photography," as Huawei claims. But you probably already knew that. You probably already guessed that the Leica name is a branding exercise rather than a legitimate technological partnership. And I'm sure you didn't invest any credence in the idea that Henry Cavill actually endorses this phone any more than a fashion model endorses whatever she's told to wear on the runway.

We pay companies to fool us

The reason Cavill, Johansson, and Leica make an appearance on Huawei's billboard is simple: money. Huawei's spending big on associating itself with big brands (and yes, Hollywood A-listers are walking, talking brands), and the sad thing is that its investment will probably be repaid. As wise as we may have grown to the cynical, vacuous endorsements that celebrities attach to various products, we still buy the hype.

Whether it's Air Jordan, Beats by Dre, or a blender endorsed by a star TV chef, we enjoy the little fantasy of using the same things as the stars. Never mind the fact that they're all probably wearing dress shoes, attending concerts in person, and having things cooked for them. In the tech world, that fantasy is promulgated by camera companies.

Pedestrian tech shouldn't command prestige pricing

Last year, Schneider Kreuznach attached its name to BlackBerry's Priv camera, following prior deals with LG and Samsung for certifying their phones and camcorders. Before that, Panasonic's CM1 cameraphone claimed to have a Leica lens in 2014. Panasonic and Leica have an established habit of unscrupulously rebadging point-and-shoot cameras and charging extra just for the addition of the red-dot logo and associated prestige. Sony also plays this game by calling its mobile lenses G lenses, the same designation it uses on its high-end professional glass. And earlier still, there was Nokia and its Carl Zeiss lenses.

It's rather similar to all the random paraphernalia sporting a Ferrari logo — from baseball caps to keychains to umbrellas to laptops — but there's one important difference. When Ferrari or some disengaged celebrity like Henry Cavill slaps down a stamp of approval on a gadget, we don't really expect the technology to be any better. But Leica and Carl Zeiss are actually in the photography business and they're putting their gloried names on photography products. Their famed intolerance for imperfection should be scrutinized and questioned when they don't endorse things of the same excellence as their own products. And this is the important thing: a true Carl Zeiss or Leica product is easily distinguishable by the eye-watering price.

There is no "budget" Leica. Greedy executives might drag the company's good name through the mass-market mud for a few extra bucks, but ultimately, a Leica camera is only a Leica camera because of the incredible attention, care, and expertise that goes into the creation of each one. Huawei phones are not meticulously handcrafted pieces of engineering art like Leica cameras, and putting the same logo on them is misleading.

Huawei and Leica collaborated more on marketing than photography

Huawei and Leica issued a joint press release last week to reiterate that they definitely worked together on the P9 and it wasn't a simple pay-for-prestige effort. I've spoken to phone designers from other companies who tell me that the Leica option has always been there: you just match a given spec for minimum optical performance and Leica hands you its rubber stamp. The only thing different from that arrangement in Huawei's PR is that it says the P9's image processing is done "with the aid of long-standing Leica optical and signal processing expertise." That's probably just true enough to not be an outright lie, but it really doesn't show itself in the photos taken with the P9.

In an ideal world, the Huawei P9 would indeed be a co-engineering project. Imagine the meeting of bright minds that would result if Leica and Huawei technicians did share a lab and collaborated on building a better smartphone camera. All those sparks of insight and invention! But instead, the closest contact between these companies was probably between beancounters and executives looking to strike the next marketing home run.

I love the tech industry and I love the fact that most of its products serve a meaningful function in people's lives. Even the seemingly exorbitant ones — like the $1,600 Noble Audio K10 headphones I just reviewed — can justify their existence by simply being better than everything else. That's what Leica built its grand name and reputation on. Huawei's P9 is by no means a bad smartphone, and its camera is far from terrible, but is it worthy of bearing the Leica name? No.