Hugo Barra + Xiaomi image from TechinAsia

What kind of company is Xiaomi?

In the recent aftermath of Beijing-based Xiaomi’s surprise announcement that they  hired Hugo Barra away from the Google Android team, there’s been a few trending questions about Xiaomi:

Is Xiaomi a Software company? A Hardware company? Ecommerce?

Hugo Barra + Xiaomi image from TechinAsia
Hugo Barra + Xiaomi image from TechinAsia

When Xiaomi launched in 2011, the founding team, led by Lei Jun and Lin Bin, opened with a complete package similar to what Apple & iOS offer: a walled garden of hardware, operating system, apps and services that kept users happy.  The handsets themselves are attractive, powerful and very competitively priced.  The MIUI operating system, an Android ROM, echoes the simplicity and design language of iOS, with some intuitive features that perform well.  Their Appstore and default apps work well and are stable & secure.  No one can really argue that Xiaomi has been anything but wildly successful.  At the Global mobile internet conference in Beijing this spring, I saw a Xiaomi popup store maintain a mob 5 people deep for nearly a week.

But as we try to reason our way toward defining Xiaomi as a company, we should look at some minor data points.

Hardware:

  • In China, Xiaomi’s phones are dominating in both High-end and budget categories, outselling flagship devices from Samsung and HTC at the top, and ZTE  / Huawei at the bottom.
  • If Apple’s not a hardware company, neither is Xiaomi — Foxconn manufactures Xiaomi devices, which feature Qualcom chipsets.
  • It’s a wicked combination of price competitiveness and attractive performance against more expensive handsets.

Operating System

  • Xiaomi’s Handsets are no guarantee that MIUI flavor of Android will stay on the handset.  I see lots of Xiaomi phones around running other ROMs.
  • Conversely, MIUI has caught on in the larger android community as a stable and reliable ROM across many non-xiaomi devices.

Ecosystem

  • Xiaomi’s walled garden included IP messaging and other services to compete with popular services like WeChat.  That hasn’t worked out so far.  Even though WeChat is not available in the Xiaomi store (at least on my phone), every Xiaomi owner has hacked it on there through other app stores.
  • Speaking of Appstores, Xiaomi is making a mint through their app store in China.  It’s important to note that China is the land of appstores — there are literally hundreds. Some are great, like WanDouJia (SnapPea) , most are terrible.  Xiaomi’s is stable, curated and safe.  It’s an open question how sticky the Xiaomi store will be in markets where users are familiar with the google-infused android expereince.
  • How popular?  Xiaomi’s Appstore just served their 1 Billionth app download

So what kind of company is Xiaomi?

Let’s start with the negative: they’re not a hardware company, and they’ve not done so well convincing their community to use the default apps.  SO they’re not really an Apps company.  They are a software company — MIUI has real artistry in it — and they are an ecommerce company.  I think we’ll see xiaomi continue to develop their ecosystem and Android ROMs, and hiring Hugo surely signals Xiaomi’s commitment to push boundaries and innovate.

Given Xiaomi’s set top box and rumored tablet product, they are also moving into entertainment: I can see a Xiaomi movies / video / music service, blending the best of Amazon and Apple’s media businesses.  While they may never have the “walled garden” Apple has created, Xiaomi will certainly continue to grow.  So why do we worry about labels?  I’ll call them a software company with lofty aspirations.  Now on to the important question:

How do you pronounce Xiaomi?

Chinese companies have trouble anglicizing their names (the English version of Huawei (wahway) sounds strange to me), but I’ll venture a guess that Xiaomi will end up being pronounced Shao Me , since, thanks to the Wu Tang Clan, everyone knows how to say Shaolin.