The 'little rice' that could
Xiaomi, which means "millet" or literally "little rice," is the upstart Chinese company that's making waves in the smartphone business. Four years after its founding, Xiaomi is now China's biggest smartphone maker. Here's a look at how it became successful, and what's in store for the international consumers who are its next target.
China's answer to Apple?
When Xiaomi announces a product, hundreds of "Mi fans" (from Xiao-mi) are there to cheer it on. Its ardent followers have inspired comparisons with Apple, though some critics say Xiaomi copies a bit too much from its U.S. rival. Whether it's the look of its products or its CEO Lei Jun dressing like Steve Jobs, the accusations keep cropping up. At a recent product unveiling, Xiaomi lifted straight from Apple's playbook with a slide that read: "One more thing..."
The Chinese company has tried to play down the comparisons but it clearly admires Apple. In January it invited Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to its Beijing office.
Shaking up the market
Despite the comparisons to Apple, Xiaomi has a very different business model: It sells its products at the lowest price it can afford. In 2011, it launched its flagship device at 1999 yuan ($324) without carrier subsidies, drawing an instant following. Since then, Xiaomi has always sold its products at only slightly above the cost to make them. It's been a cornerstone of its success and put pressure on rivals Samsung, Huawei and ZTE.
Pictured is Xiaomi's newest flagship phone, the Mi 4, which has a quad-core 2.5GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 5-inch 1080p screen, all wrapped in a steel casing.
It keeps its prices low partly by selling most of its phones online, rather than through physical stores or mobile carriers. Its virtual store has become a popular online destination in the country.
The products that drove Xiaomi to the top of China's smartphone market haven't been its top-end phones but its lower-priced Redmi products. Redmi phones start as low as 699 yuan (US$113) without carrier subsidies.
Pictured is the Redmi 1S. Encased in plastic, it doesn't feel like a premium device but it has some good specs, including a quad-core processor, 4.7-inch display with a 720p resolution, and an 8-megapixel camera. Analysts estimate that over half of Xiaomi phones sold in China are Redmi devices.
Ask CEO Lei Jun why Xiaomi is succeeding and he'll point to its constant engagement with its "Mi fans." This is achieved partly through its MIUI software, the forked version of Android installed on its products. Xiaomi offers updates to MIUI on a weekly basis, using input from its hardcore fans to streamline the interface and improve system apps.
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