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The New York Times Gets Xiaomi Way, Way Wrong

xiaomi founder - lei jun

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun wearing a black shirt and jeans and thus totally copying Steve jobs.

It’s pleasing to see that the overseas media is finally paying some attention to Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. But unfortunately, the New York Times’s latest piece on the company was, I think, extremely misleading. So while I have nothing but respect for author David Barboza, I feel I can’t help but rip this one apart.

The whole article is based on the premise that Xiaomi is aping Apple and Steve Jobs, and on a surface level, this is pretty true. Both companies sell smartphones. Both founders favor black shirts with jeans. But beyond that, it all starts to break down. So let’s go through this article bit by bit and see what we can say about it. It begins:

China is notorious for its knockoffs. But now comes a knockoff of one of the gods of American ingenuity: Steven P. Jobs.

In a country where products like iPhones are made but rarely invented, Lei Jun — entrepreneur, billionaire and professed Jobs acolyte — is positioning himself and his company as figurative heirs of Mr. Jobs. The Chinese media have nicknamed his company, Xiaomi, the “Apple of the East.”

The article certainly begins provocatively, with an assertion that Lei Jun is just “a knockoff” of Steve Jobs. Yes, there are some aesthetic similarities in their press conference styles (both in terms of clothing and in terms of presentation), and I highly doubt that’s a coincidence. But beyond that, are they so similar that Lei Jun, a longtime China tech industry veteran, can really be called a knockoff of Jobs? Since the late 90s, Lei Jun has been working and investing almost exclusively in software and web platforms while Jobs was pushing Apple hardware; Lei’s career cetainly hasn’t mimicked Jobs’s. Even the aesthetic argument is questionable; the black-shirt-and-jeans look Jobs preferred almost exclusively is something Lei Jun employs only on occasion (here’s a launch event, for example, where he wore a suit). And Lei typically prefers short-sleeve polo shirts to Jobs’ long-sleeve turtlenecks.

Moreover, the term “the Apple of China” is not something that I have ever read in the Chinese press in my two years of covering the company for Tech in Asia. I don’t doubt that some Chinese media outlet has, at some point, called Xiaomi this. But it’s certainly not a common nickname, and when I did a search for the term in Chinese, every result I could find was just quoting the New York Times article. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single instance of this term’s use in the Chinese press before June 5 (the day after the NYT article was published) on Google News.

But those are really just minor gripes. Let’s move on to the big stuff.

The title is a stretch, by almost any measure. But Mr. Lei nonetheless is carefully cultivating a Jobsian image here, right down to his jeans and dark shirts. He is also selling millions of mobile phones that look a lot like iPhones. Chinese consumers — and deep-pocketed investors overseas — seem to be believers.

The opening line about Lei Jun is something that I would actually sort of agree with, at least on an aesthetic level. But Xiaomi phones look like iPhones? That’s nonsense. Yes, they’re black rectangles with screens, but that’s true of virtually every smartphone on the market. Beyond that, where are the similarities? iPhones are all glass and metal; Xiaomi phones are pure plastic. As someone who owned an iPhone, then switched to a Xiaomi, and recently moved back to an iPhone, I feel quite confident saying that the phones have a very different overall look and feel. If Xiaomi is trying to make smartphones by copying the iPhone’s design, as Barboza is suggesting here, it is truly awful at copying.

xiaomi-copying-apple

Skipping down a bit, past the part where the NYT suggests Xiaomi is pronounced “SHAO-mee” — it isn’t; “SHIAO-mee” would be closer — we come to the real meat of the piece:

Mr. Lei, for his part, hardly discourages comparisons to Apple and Mr. Jobs. And why would he? Founded by a group of Chinese engineers three years ago, his company sold seven million mobile phones last year by using designs that mimic the look and feel of the iPhone and using marketing that seems right out of Apple’s playbook.

As I previously mentioned, the devices don’t look particularly alike (if we take as a given that all smartphones are small rectangles with screens). And they feel absolutely nothing alike. Seriously, try picking up an iPhone in one hand and a Xiaomi in the other. The materials are very different. The weight is very different. And if you actually start using the devices, the user experience is very different, too. Apple is all about simplicity; a clear and streamlined user experience that’s the same across the board. Xiaomi is all about customizability; users can tweak almost everything about their phones, or even abandon the preinstalled MIUI operating system (a slick Android skin) altogether if they so choose. That is, if anything, the polar opposite of Apple’s approach.

And Xiaomi’s marketing isn’t particularly similar to Apple’s, either. As I mentioned previously, there are certainly aesthetic similarities in terms of their presentation styles, but Xiaomi’s buzz marketing through its continued use of very limited sales windows is a far cry from Apple’s global, buy-it-everywhere blowouts. When was the last time Apple announced a new iPhone, and then said there would be a few hundred thousand available for a limited preorder? Oh right, it was never.

But here’s the real difference between Apple and Xiaomi: price. Apple markets its products as luxuries, especially in China. They’re expensive, and if you don’t like it or you can’t afford it, then they’re not for you, period. Xiaomi, in total contrast, claims it is selling its phones at no profit to keep the price as low as possible. Whether that’s actually true is debatable, but that’s certainly a gigantic difference in the way the two companies market their products, and it has been a huge part of the reason Xiaomi has been so successful so fast and spawned a whole group of copycats selling cheap-but-powerful smartphones.

This does come up a bit later in the NYT piece:

Skeptics say the company produces low-price iPhone imitations with no significant software or hardware advantages. They also say the company faces stiff challenges from Apple and Samsung, which are in a position to offer low-price smartphones.

xiaomiIndeed, Apple and Samsung could offer low-price, high-performance smartphones in China, but they haven’t (Samsung does offer low cost phones but none I’m aware of that perform as well as Xiaomi for the price). Why are they now potentially considering doing so? Because of Xiaomi’s success in that market.

And while it’s tough to argue specifics with the anonymous “skeptics” cited in the piece, I can say that personally, I was introduced to the Xiaomi as a die-hard iPhone user and, to be quite frank, someone who really disliked Xiaomi founder Lei Jun. Before using it, I called the Xiaomi an iPhone clone, and I wrote in the article I just linked that I was hoping the company would fail. But after actually seeing the Xiaomi in action, I had to admit I was wrong, and indeed was so convinced that I bought one. After recently switching back to iPhone 5, I’ve been unimpressed enough that I’m probably headed back to Xiaomi for whatever my next smartphone will be.

But since the anonymous “skeptics” in the NYT article apparently couldn’t find any hardware or software advantages for the Xiaomi, allow me to list just a few:

  • Easily replaceable/swappable battery: if your battery dies, you can just buy another one for cheap, rather than having to pay for Apple’s costly repairs or buy a new phone altogether.
  • Easily replaceable/swappable SIM card: unlike the iPhone, removing the Xiaomi’s SIM card doesn’t require any special equipment other than your hands.
  • Easily replaceable/swappable memory card: so you can choose your own card for data storage, switch out different cards if you need to carry a lot of data with you, etc. (At least in the Xiaomi M1; newer models have sadly dropped this feature).
  • Multicolor, swappable case backs on the latest Xiaomi phones.
  • Total customizability: in terms of what you can change and control, the difference between MIUI and iOS is really like night and day.
  • Everything’s swappable: Don’t like the MIUI keyboard? Download a new one! Don’t like the iOS keyboard? Deal with it, that’s the keyboard you get.

Now, it’s not my intent to say that Xiaomi’s phones are better than iPhones. That’s purely a matter of opinion, and there are obviously advantages to taking Apple’s tightly-controlled approach to hardware and OS design. It really comes down to personal taste. My point is simply that there are major differences between these two phones, and if the New York Times‘s “skeptics” didn’t find any then frankly they’re idiots.

And bizarrely, later in the article Barboza himself points out more differences between the Apple and Xiaomi’s design and marketing approaches:

Xiaomi also outsources designs and features online from its so-called Mi-Fans, and releases a new version of the operating system every Friday, to add new features and keep the Mi-Fans excited.

Can somebody please remind me of the last time that Apple did something like that?

It is perhaps telling that throughout the entire piece, which repeatedly suggests Xiaomi is just copying Apple, Barboza doesn’t get a single quote from any named source who’s willing to say as much. Everyone quoted in the article seems to have only nice things to say about Xiaomi, and Lei Jun himself is the only person who makes any kind of Apple comparison.

This has been a difficult piece for me to write, because I greatly admire most of Barboza’s work at the New York Times. But I have to admit that if the byline were someone else’s, I’d probably have written something even harsher. At best, the NYT article seems like an attempt to shoehorn a very interesting company into the pre-conceived narrative that any Chinese company doing something well must be copying it from someone (probably Apple). At worst, it’s a total hack job that seems ready to condemn an entire company as copycats because one of its founders admires Steve Jobs and occasionally wears similar pants.

Either way, it’s very disappointing that this is the part of the Xiaomi story that’s being presented to American audiences who, frankly, might be interested to learn that there’s a company making more customizable phones with iPhone-level hardware performance at less than half the iPhone’s price.

(Interestingly, I’m not the only one who thinks so. This Forbes article by Rebecca Fannin makes a similar point, although her claim that WeChat has 800 million users is pretty baffling.)

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