Mobile World Congress: More than phones and Leica’s history - Hindustan Times
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Mobile World Congress: More than phones and Leica’s history

Feb 29, 2024 02:43 PM IST

The biggest attraction this year at a show that gets its name from a passionate interest in mobile telephony, is a car.

It has been a rather frenetic past week or so, and in a good way. You’ll know because this week’s more succinct than usual conversation will revolve around those themes. There’re some rather interesting new technology trends that emerged at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (unlike what the event naming suggests, not limited to phones). Followed by an illustration what German camera company Leica are up to as they give Xiaomi’s smartphones the x-factor to hold their ground in a competitive space. A lot has to do with their history and approach.

A flying car at the Moble World Congress (By Special Arrangement)
A flying car at the Moble World Congress (By Special Arrangement)

FUTURE

The biggest attraction this year at a show that gets its name from a passionate interest in mobile telephony, is a car. You couldn’t have guessed it, could you? Now take a wild guess at who is making this brilliance? Xiaomi. See, you couldn’t guess that too! It is, as I called, an “undeniably bold leap of faith”. The investment figures are mind-boggling, including on human talent and technology. In fact, Xiaomi repeatedly stressed the point in our conversations that the entire investment pool has been created by setting aside part of profits other divisions have made over the years. There’s no external funding for the SU7 electric vehicle. Another important element to this puzzle – Xiaomi is building as much of the tech it can in-house, to reduce reliance on component makers and thereby occasional supply chain whims.

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Read: Xiaomi SU7’s in-house tech ingenuity is indicative of a shift in philosophy

For an event that began as a showcase of cutting-edge smartphone tech over the years, things have changed significantly. It may have made for a much different picture if Xiaomi hadn’t turned up with their new flagships, the Xiaomi 14 Ultra and the Xiaomi 14. Pricing for India will be relevant only for the Xiaomi 14 since the larger and possibly more expensive phone doesn’t arrive on our shores for now – no official word yet, but the hints I can pick seem to suggest pricing could be a shade below the 75,000 mark. Whether that’s box price or balanced with offers, remains to be seen. Lots of similarities still between the two phones – Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip, new HyperOS software and cameras optimised by Leica.

There was more too. Samsung had no new phones, and their AI pitch is something we’ve already heard before since the turn of the Galaxy S24 phones last month, but they did turn up with a few Galaxy Ring health tracking rings that were kept safely in large glass cases. Needless to say, they’ve no details on the specs or pricing or availability. The less said about HMD Global’s attempts at seeking some attention, with the Barbie phone. A few flying cars on display too (though none actually flying), a reminder we shouldn’t forget this space is bubbling beneath the surface.

Lenovo's transparent laptop(By Special Arrangement )
Lenovo's transparent laptop(By Special Arrangement )

It was Lenovo (when they decide to be innovative these days) that had (I must say has; just because I’ve exited the building doesn’t mean the party is over) perhaps a rather interesting thing to show (no, not that bendable Moto phone that’s forever been a concept) – a laptop with a transparent display. To call it a transparent laptop would be an overkill (the components underneath still sit inside a typical black chassis). It’s a 17.3-inch microLED display but at least on this concept, still limited to 720p resolution. Perfectly usable for most home and work use-cases, but it’ll just not sit right on the spec sheet. There’s no physical keyboard too – that’s also glass, and touch. I am not exactly sure if I like this keyboard approach – on phones, its fine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work on computers too.

Read: Mobile World Congress 2024: Xiaomi SU7, AI progress and Android evolves

PAST

I always love conversations about the past. A people perspective that you wouldn’t find in history books. Even more so, when it is a native’s perception of how things in the past have shaped their present and hinted at the future. A person I’ve grown to respect a lot in the short time spent having a conversation with him at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar and the Ernst Leitz Museum (let’s just refer to him as Uli), gave us a window into not just Leica’s history, but detailed how some of the most iconic photos we see from our history (and likely never wondered who took these photos, and how) were clicked using a Leica camera. That is when Leica’s history, and legacy, becomes clearer. We live in an era where the intention usually is to look at the past as long as it is convenient. Uli detailed how Leica as a brand (and the people who made this brand, the Leitz family) navigated the incredibly tough times when a man we call Hitler was calling the shots.

Read: From 1914 to now, Leica’s definitive history is Xiaomi’s photography trump card

It is also this history which allowed it to build the world’s first compact digital camera, something we took for granted over the past couple of decades. The street of New York was the first photo to emerge from the UR-Leica, the inarguable origin point for portable photography devices. It all makes sense, if you dot the timeline, to where we have now reached with smartphone cameras. Leica’s not dabbled with smartphones earlier as well, but in a way, the timing is perhaps at its optimum for their partnership with Xiaomi. It benefits not just Xiaomi, it is the consumer who has the most to gain – and pushes competition to up the game too.

There are a few things Leica and Xiaomi are very clear on – the basics of photography when improved, can genuinely improve photos you take. Artificial intelligence cannot.(By Special Arrangement )
There are a few things Leica and Xiaomi are very clear on – the basics of photography when improved, can genuinely improve photos you take. Artificial intelligence cannot.(By Special Arrangement )

There are a few things Leica and Xiaomi are very clear on – the basics of photography when improved, can genuinely improve photos you take. Artificial intelligence cannot. “A good picture needs the best lens and optics. We work together for the photo output from the device, and it is up to Xiaomi to pick the components that may work best with our approach,” summarises Leica’s approach. In fact, I was also using a Xiaomi 14 smartphone during this time (I’ve never clicked more than 700 photos, even on a vacation), and those basics show – optics seem optimised for handling light (no blown out exposure if a light is in the frame), detailing (rarely had to switch to the 50-megapixel mode) and zooming in on further away subjects (a floating telephoto lens).

One thing Xiaomi is clear about – their phone cameras will keep the use of AI to a minimum, even though it cannot be completely ignored. It is the reliable, old-school way of extracting the maximum detailing and realism from photos as close as possible to the actual scene. Nothing really surpasses good hardware as the foundation. Yet, it is a tougher path to walk, requiring often painstaking effort to get everything working optimally. Intuition and experience, count. Neither brand wants to shirk the effort.

The choice is ultimately with consumers. Do you prefer heavy AI processing on your photos, or a dash of realism. My personal preference is clear. But for most of you, I’d suggest making a choice after a side-by-side comparison.

The following article was published in this week's edition of Wired Wisdom. You can subscribe here.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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