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For consumers pursuing the cutting edge of smartphone evolution, the most commonly asked question revolves around whether innovation of these devices has reached its limits. Within the industry, however, it’s taken for granted that handsets will keep getting more powerful, thinner, longer-lasting and more intelligent.

Between these two perspectives, however, lies a massive challenge for smartphone makers. Because their devices now incorporate so much functionality, taking over the roles of cameras and gaming machines, among other, they have to develop design and innovation capacity in numerous areas.

For smaller manufacturers, it’s impossible to achieve the necessary level of expertise across all functions, and they tend to build in components from specialist companies that provide them off the shelf. This is the prime reason so many smartphones today are almost indistinguishable from each other.

For larger brands, that is clearly not an option. They are fighting a massive war for attention, and their flagship devices live or die by differentiation. Yes, they are turning to the specialists to solve this problem for them. But, unlike those relying on off-the-shelf technology, the major brands are now working closely with the suppliers to give their technology and design expertise a new trajectory.

It was seen in Samsung’s collaboration with virtual reality leaders Oculus Rift to raise the performance level of its Gear VR headset. LG collaborated with Bang & Olufsen to build a speaker module for its G5 smartphone earlier this year. More recently, Lenovo brought in Hasselblad and JBL to build the camera and speaker add-on “mods” for its Moto Z smartphones.

Now, the lid has been lifted on one of the most ambitious approached yet to this strategy. Huawei, the third-biggest smartphone maker in the world after Samsung and Apple, has chosen this route to cement its positioning and muscle its way up the rankings.

At last week’s Munich launch of its new Mate 9 smartphone, Huawei startled the industry with both a massive 5.9-inch display and what is probably the most advanced camera yet seen on a smartphone. It worked closely with the iconic camera maker Leica to bring its phone camera as close to professional quality as possible.

Huawei had also worked with Leica on the optics of its 5.2-inch flagship phone, the P9, launched eight months ago. The Mate 9 reveals just how far that partnership has come in such a short time. It carries two lenses on the rear, one with a 12 Megapixel RGB or colour sensor, and the other with a 20 Megapixel monochrome sensor. The two sensors use image fusion technology to combine two simultaneous image captures into one photo, delivering images of astonishing quality.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei Consumer Business Group, said at the launch that the company had to delve into the very philosophy of photography in working with Leica.

“Our engineering people have had to discuss what photography stands for,” he said. “The result is a new standard for both low-light and monochrome photography. Most photos taken by smartphones are in a low-light environment, but most cameras are geared towards normal light”.

Huawei also worked with the Porche Design team to produce a special edition of the Mate 9, with a smaller display, rounded screen edges, and Porsche branding.

While Porsche may not have the same impact as Leica on smartphone innovation, it further cements the powerful strategy of innovation through partnership.

  • This column first appeared in Business Times in the Sunday Times on 13 November 2016.

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