2018 will go down as the year when it became impossible to ignore the increasing advancements of Chinese smartphone hardware, from superlative camera arrays and super-speed charging to in-display fingerprint scanners and creative ways to stretch the display across as much of the front of the phone as possible. In a year that has seen Apple, Samsung, and now Google deliver iterative design updates to their flagship phones, devices like the Oppo Find X, Huawei P20 Pro, and Vivo Nex will be particularly memorable for their sheer gadgety appeal.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re always the best devices to actually use. Many experienced Android users in the West who try out Chinese phones, including reviewers here at The Verge, often find themselves unable to get over an immediate stumbling block: the software. For the unfamiliar, Chinese phone software can be garish, heavy-handed, and quite unlike anything installed on phones that are popular outside of Asia. If there’s anything that’s going to turn you off the brand-new Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example — unsubstantiated Cold War-esque paranoia aside — it’s likely to be the software.
But for the last year-plus, I’ve used almost every major Chinese phone extensively, traveled to the country several times, and met with dozens of people at its biggest phone manufacturers. This experience hasn’t altogether stopped me from feeling that most Chinese phone companies have a long way to go in many areas of software development. No one has a great answer for why everyone copies the iPhone camera app so embarrassingly. But I have learned a lot about the design principles behind many of these phones, and — as you ought to expect — there does tend to be a method behind what some may assume to be madness.
Let me take you back to the heady summer of 2013 when no two devices sparked more excitement among Verge editors and readers alike than the Google Play Editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. These were unlocked versions of each company’s new flagship phones that went on sale through Google’s Play Store, and their biggest feature was a lack of features; they ran a version of Android completely devoid of their manufacturers’ software customizations.
Enthusiasts call this “stock Android,” ostensibly meaning Android as Google designed it. But the reason Android gathered such traction in the first place is because manufacturers and carriers could obtain it for free and customize it to their liking, which Google thought would help combat Microsoft’s competing mobile versions of Windows. This practice reached its nadir around 2012 with bloated “skins,” such as Samsung’s TouchWiz and HTC’s Sense, which, at their worst, slowed down perfectly good phones with flashy graphics and truckloads of useless features. That’s why the Google Play Editions were such catnip to Android heads: great hardware, simple software.
The situation is very different today. Companies like Samsung take a more restrained approach, and Google Play Editions no longer exist. The concept of stock Android is now blurrier, with Google’s own Pixel line running exclusive software not found on the company’s canonical stripped-back OS, Android One. And the open-source version of Android offered through AOSP (Android Open Source Project) is no longer a viable operating system in its own right, with very little support for the built-in apps and APIs. All mainstream Android devices in the West now license Google Play services to provide essential smartphone functionality, while also having to use Google’s suite of modern apps such as the Play Store, the Chrome browser, Maps, search, and so on.
The problem for Chinese handset makers, of course, is that all of those services are blocked in China, so supplementing open-source Android with Google software simply isn’t an option. If you’re a Chinese phone company that wants to sell to Chinese customers, the most sensible thing to do is use AOSP as a software base for compatibility with the world’s most popular operating system, then build China-specific features, services, and an app store on top of that. Then, you think about the rest of the world. Maybe.
To put it another way, Chinese Android phones don’t really run superficial skins like TouchWiz; they run whole new operating systems that happen to support Android apps. And the first company to really execute on this idea was Xiaomi.
Step into a medium-sized mall in a medium-sized Chinese city — which, granted, means a mega-sized city by the rest of the world’s standards — and you’re likely to come across a Mi Home store. These well-lit emporiums draw obvious comparisons to Apple’s own stores, but they’re really more like Japanese lifestyle retailer Muji. Xiaomi funds countless startups to produce a huge range of low-priced, tastefully minimalist devices that work together as part of the company’s Mi Home ecosystem, as well as more commodified products like luggage and phone chargers.
But Xiaomi’s impressive retail presence belies the fact that the company got its start entirely through software. MIUI (pronounced “me-you-eye”), Xiaomi’s version of Android, saw its first release in 2010, a time when there was little in the way of high-quality Chinese smartphone software. MIUI quickly gained users in the aftermarket ROM scene, even outside of China — Verge editor Dan Seifert recalls installing it on an HTC Droid Incredible as a way to make up the gap with iOS that existed at the time — and it wasn’t until a year later that the first Xiaomi smartphone was released.
“MIUI’s vision is the same as Xiaomi’s, which is to enable everyone to enjoy the fun of technology,” a lead designer who goes by the English mononym Robin told me last year. We were speaking after the Beijing launch of Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2 handset; Robin works on both software and hardware and had been involved in adapting MIUI for the Mi Mix’s taller, bezel-less screen.
“I think when it comes to making phones, hardware design is a lot different than software design,” Robin said. “When we design a big screen, we always think of increasing the space and reducing the volume, say, by making the screen 0.1mm thinner. So hardware ID is actually about space. However, software design is about time, as evidenced by the design of user experience and operations such as lighting up the screen and unlocking it before launching an app or action.”
MIUI is nothing if not efficient with your time. Unlock a Xiaomi phone, and you’ll see snappy animations, clean visual design, and overall far less cruft than you’d expect from such a comprehensive overhaul of Android. In many ways, it’s the archetypal Chinese phone OS with its simple colors, lack of app drawer, and focus on shortcuts. The designers I spoke to pointed out specific features that have received strong feedback from Xiaomi’s users, such as the advanced conversion abilities of the calculator app and a crowdsourced phonebook that helps you screen calls from unfamiliar numbers.
“What makes MIUI most special is that it is user-focused from day one,” said Gary, MIUI’s design director. “We have a forum dedicated to Xiaomi fans where they can communicate and discuss their pains during phone use, demands and suggestions with our product and design teams. We are open to user suggestions during discussion, and we add the functions they need to MIUI as appropriate.”
Some of these features are legitimately inventive and useful, though that may not be immediately apparent to users outside of China. The Smart App Launcher, a headline addition to MIUI 9, is one of them. It’s similar in concept to the Google Assistant feature formerly known as Now on Tap, using AI to analyze what’s on the phone’s screen, but it taps into other apps like WeChat and the food service DianPing to provide quick information and deep links through long presses. It can save huge amounts of time if you’re using services that work well with it, which is the problem with assessing it outside of China.
Xiaomi says it doesn’t distinguish between Chinese and foreign users when designing MIUI, but some features are inevitably going to target the company’s home market. To that end, Xiaomi is also responding to its huge success in India with features aimed directly at the country. MIUI 10 has specific integrations with services that are popular in India like Paytm, for example, which can now be operated directly through QR codes in the camera app. The shopping site Flipkart can be opened through links in SMS messages containing order details. There’s also a page of India-specific progressive web apps right inside the browser.
Whether MIUI’s style is to your taste or not, it’s hard to deny that it’s a coherent, credible operating system in its own right. If you prefer, say, Google’s flavor of Android as seen on the Pixel, that’s a perfectly reasonable perspective to have. But it’s not one that’s particularly relevant to the situation in China, where the vast majority of users have never even seen the Play Store.
Not all Chinese vendors take Xiaomi’s approach. Vivo, for example, ships phones with software that’s wonderfully named Funtouch OS, which is currently in its fourth major iteration. More so than the current versions of MIUI or even most other Chinese phone software, Funtouch OS bears deep similarities to Apple’s iOS in ways that can’t really be waved away as coincidence or “obvious” design. The bubbly notifications, the swipe-up transparent control center, and the scrolling list of widgets to the right of the screen will all be very familiar to an iPhone user, even if they’re using hardware as wild as the Vivo Nex.
And frankly, that might not be the worst idea in the world, given the hundreds of millions of Chinese iPhone users. As Stratechery writer and analyst Ben Thompson noted last year, switching away from the iPhone is a lot more difficult in the West, where many users have years of app purchases and iMessage contacts to serve as a form of sticky lock-in. Chinese users don’t care about iMessage, of course, because of WeChat’s ubiquity, but the chat app’s influence is far more profound than that. WeChat is so important to almost everything Chinese users do on their phones, from making payments to playing games, that it could just as well be called an operating system itself.
With that in mind, making your phone’s basic user interface work just like the iPhone — particularly in a country with notoriously lax IP laws, and in a world that got bored of Apple and Samsung’s legal disputes years ago — makes a certain degree of sense. Funtouch OS started development several years after MIUI, and by the time Vivo rose to prominence, WeChat was already dominant. And as an example of grand software larceny, I’m not sure I’d rank it above recent American exploits such as what Instagram has done to Snapchat, or Fortnite to PUBG.
Funtouch OS does have some neat features in its own right, but unlike Xiaomi’s MIUI, they rarely attempt to wrangle with the core of how the phone is operated. Instead, they’re in the spirit of Vivo’s flashy hardware design: a pop-up selfie camera here, an in-display fingerprint sensor there, and a cool picture-in-picture chat feature for games there. (If only Vivo had thought to include a search box in the settings app so I could get my head around all of them.) A Vivo product manager described the philosophy to me, saying, “We don’t innovate for the sake of innovation alone, but instead, we design with the goal of addressing customers’ needs for the best mobile experience.” If those needs are “provide a grid of apps and some familiar controls so that you can use WeChat, browse the internet, listen to music, and take photos,” I would say mission accomplished.
Speaking of taking photos, Chinese phone cameras have also become known for their aggressive image processing, particularly when it comes to selfies. Many of these phones apply techniques to brighten faces and smooth out skin, and I asked Xiaomi’s Wang Qian, who works on MIUI’s photo software, to what extent the company considers users outside China with these features. “Psychologically, the most important characteristic of Chinese users is that they want to look fair, with a bit of pink in white,” she said. “We understand however that outside of Asian countries, users including those in Europe, the US, and India, prefer a more natural effect. Of course, our first step is to focus on China and Asian users. We would then implement these changes in other territories. We have already started to study the clothing, skin tone and other aspects of users in Europe or the US.”
As for the camera apps, it’s really incredible how similar the vast majority are — both to each other and to Apple. Judging by the accuracy and specificity of the rip-offs, the camera app from iOS 7 has a serious claim to being one of the most influential software designs of the past decade. Just look at the picture above. Xiaomi wins an extremely low number of points for putting the modes in a lowercase blue font. But otherwise, only Huawei has succeeded in creating a genuinely new camera app design, which happens to be very good. I consider it penance for the company’s egregious and barely functional rip-off of the iOS share sheet.
“Vivo’s performance in the global market so far is the result of great effort to understand consumer behavior, and our camera UI is designed with consumers’ habits in mind,” the Vivo product manager told me. “The swipe across navigation feature allows for users to keep their current habits to access different photography mode. This is supported by our usability tests which indicated that this method has the highest efficiency and best user experience.”
This backs up the idea that attracting iPhone switchers is a serious objective for Chinese software designers. “I definitely see that there’s evidence of a number of different companies that could be seen as following Apple or trying to create a UI that’s very much iOS-like,” says Pete Lau, CEO of phone company OnePlus. “And maybe they’re doing it for reasons of thinking that it makes it easier for users to transition to their products from Apple, and find the experience to be similar.”
“I think Apple has great authority in this industry, and makes good products with great human touch,” says Xiaomi’s Robin. “I think that we’re similar when it comes to designing for the user and for people. The design of our mobile phones and operating system is so that people could use them. As far as we’re concerned, therefore, it’s not merely an operating system. It’s a tool that is more concerned with having a human touch, and serving people better. The difference between our and other systems is that some systems simply imitate Apple’s, but our MIUI has been in pursuit of change from day one. We have all sorts of customized themes, and are able to meet the needs of different people using their systems in different ways.”
It is certainly possible to ascribe too much significance to the out-of-the-box aesthetics of Chinese phone software. Every manufacturer in the country encourages users to dramatically change the way their phone looks by including a dedicated store that lets them download free and paid themes. As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber pointed out recently, for example, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s default skin has more than a few icons that are obviously lifted from iOS. But how many people will actually use them in practice? These icons are more about marketing features than executing on an aesthetic. “Default wallpaper is just a layer of clothing in an operating system,” says Robin. “We’ve decided that quality is more important than the garment you wear on the outside. Of course, we have a very big closet, and we can make you look more beautiful, but internal attributes and quality are the most important things as far as an operating system is concerned.”
There is one Chinese company that stands apart from its competitors in the software experience it delivers, and it also happens to be the one with the biggest enthusiast following in the US. OnePlus has built a name for itself with high-specced, reasonably priced devices that hew closely to Google’s take on Android with excellent performance and the occasional smart new feature.
“Our focus is a burdenless experience,” CEO Pete Lau told me recently in the company’s Shenzhen headquarters. “That’s trying to have the experience be as close as possible to what’s intuitive, minimal, light, smooth, and seamless in the software, and not adding features unless we’re sure that they’ve been proven to add better value for the users. It’s not adding a lot of unnecessary features for the sake of it, or advertisements. It’s trying to make that experience have a flow that matches what users expect.”
OnePlus positions itself as a startup, but it’s closely related to Chinese phone giant Oppo, with which it shares investors and supply chain resources. In fact, you can pick up Wi-Fi networks labeled “Oppo” from the OnePlus office downstairs. But when it comes to software design, the two companies couldn’t be more different. Oppo phones come loaded with ColorOS, which I would characterize as similar to Funtouch OS — Vivo is also entangled in this family tree — but with slightly more focus on power-user features like multitasking shortcuts. (Also, it has a search box in the settings app.)
OnePlus’ Oxygen OS, however, is an exercise in restraint. The best feature is its sheer performance. Software optimizations mean that with the exception of Google’s Pixel phones, OnePlus is the only company that can touch the iPhone in terms of responsiveness and smoothness. I spoke to OnePlus software engineers about how this is achieved, and they emphasized that it wouldn’t be possible without the company’s strategy and release schedule. OnePlus releases just two phones a year, usually discontinuing the prior model when the next comes out, and each is based on the fastest Qualcomm processors available at the time. This allows the Oxygen OS engineers to target the hardware as best they can, resulting in a more efficient software build than if they had to support slower devices at the same time. It’s that freedom, combined with a breakneck approach to animations and UI transitions, that makes phones like the OnePlus 6 feel so fast.
In addition to Oxygen OS, OnePlus develops a version for the Chinese market called Hydrogen OS, which has a mostly similar UI but comes loaded with China-specific features and services to replace the Google equivalents. And despite the radical departure from typical Chinese phone software, OnePlus believes users are happy. “‘Comfortable’ is a word I hear a lot in feedback from the local market on using our system versus others,” Lau says, adding that he thinks Chinese tastes may be shifting in OnePlus’ direction.
“In looking at Chinese users, it’s a very interesting question. I see them as changing. They have the same demands in what I see as wanting a device experience that’s fast and smooth, so that’s something we focus on in China as much as everywhere else. And what I see as a trend is, this is shifting from user expectations being a long list of cool or exciting or differentiating or superfluous features, into something that’s more minimal. It’s a transitionary period, it’ll take time.”
It’s impossible to know when or whether Chinese phone software will make a major change, but Lau is certainly right that it will take time. Maybe it’ll be an organic shift toward more minimalist user interfaces. Maybe Google’s controversial exploration of China will ultimately impact Android’s presence in the market. Maybe it’s all a moot point as long as WeChat continues to define the Chinese mobile experience.
But what is true today is that not all Chinese phone software is bad. And when it is bad from a Western perspective, it’s often bad for very different reasons than the bad Android skins of the past. Yes, many of these phones make similar mistakes with overbearing UI decisions — hello, Huawei — and yes, it’s easy to mock some designs for their obvious thrall to iOS. But these are phones created in a very different context to Android devices as we’ve previously understood them.
The Chinese phone market is a spiraling behemoth of innovation and audacity, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you want to be on board with the already exciting hardware, it’s worth trying to understand the software.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge