My first real impression of Xiaomi was quite negative. Although I was aware of the company beforehand, the first time I really paid attention to it was when I came across this article written by Xiaomi founder Lei Jun that’s, well, a little crazy (Xiaomi reps later told me that the piece had been changed by editors after Lei wrote it and without his knowledge or approval). Then there was the incident where the official Xiaomi weibo account posted “iDead” shortly following Steve Jobs’ death — not classy. And though I’m no big Apple fan, it was hard not to be a little put off by the obvious similarities in style, especially when Lei Jun hosted a launch event in Steve Jobs’ trademark jeans and turtleneck.
That was all a year or so ago, and in the intervening year I have grown to like the company enough that I even bought one of its phones. I’m very excited about the rumored set-top box that may or may not be coming. And increasingly I find myself liking Lei Jun and hoping Xiaomi succeeds. So what changed?
A couple things. First and foremost is that from what I can see, the company is interested in solving real problems and in actually serving consumers. In the early goings, the price needed to be low for Xiaomi to remain competitive. But a year of branding and hype later, it would have been easy for Xiaomi to raise the price a little bit for the Mi2 handset. Even with the influx of other cheap smartphone competitors, I’m fairly certain the Mi2 could have been priced at 2499 RMB instead of 1999 RMB and it would still have sold out its preorders in record time. So why didn’t Xiaomi ratchet up the prices? I can’t claim to be privy to the company’s internal discussions. But what I do know is the current price allows lots of people who can’t afford something as expensive as an iPhone or a Galaxy SIII to buy a comparably powerful smartphone for a fraction of the price. It’s making the internet and smartphones more accessible to more people, and what’s more, its success at a low price point has inspired lots of competitors to try to do the same thing. That’s a great thing for consumers.
I also like that Xiaomi backs up the hype, of course. Any company is only as good as its products, and while I haven’t gotten a chance to play with the Mi2 yet, the company’s first smartphone was pretty damn good. And I don’t just mean good for the price, I mean good period.
Finally, I like that Xiaomi has guts. Just like it would have been easy for the company to raise prices a little bit for the Mi2, it also would have been easy to capitalize on its branding and crank out yet another Android tablet like everyone else seems to be doing. But Lei Jun has said that although that would be easy, he’s not interested. Instead, rumor has it the company is working on a set-top box for internet TV. Sure, it sounds like Apple TV, but Apple TV is one of Apple’s least successful products. If the rumors are true — and increasingly I suspect that they may be — then Xiaomi is taking a pretty big risk with potentially huge rewards. It’s hard not to respect that.
I don’t like everything about Xiaomi; for example, I’m not a huge fan of its artificial-scarcity sales tactics. But as cynical as it may be to mail phones out a few thousand at a time, it’s tough to argue with Xiaomi’s success. And from a marketing perspective, the preorders, ship dates, and open sales enable the company to take what would be one burst of publicity and turn it into dozens because every time a new round of devices is sold, there’s a new quotable statistic (“Xiaomi sold X handsets in Y hours!”) and thus a new round of news stories.
Of course, Xiaomi is still quite a young company, and things could still go very wrong. But as of right now, I’d say that if Chinese startups out there are looking for a role model, Xiaomi is about as good an example as they’ll find. Here’s hoping the company stays focused and gutsy and doesn’t drop the ball and get lazy or greedy.
Note: Hopefully this is obvious, but I have no relationship with Xiaomi or any of its staff and no interests (financial or otherwise) in it or any of its competitors. Of course, we do cover Xiaomi and its competitors here on Tech in Asia, and will continue to to so, basing our coverage on the facts available to us.