A man wearing a black top and denim jeans stands on stage promising to unveil "one more thing." As much as that might sound like the familiar finale to an Apple keynote, it's actually Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun building up to the announcement of his company's new Mi Band at an event in Beijing today. The $13 accessory crowned the launch of the Mi 4 Android smartphone, which will retail in China from August for a price of $320.
In the immediate wake of the Mi 4 launch event, Xiaomi's global vice president Hugo Barra spoke with The Verge and was keen to correct a few misconceptions around his company. Firstly, it should be known simply as Mi. "We talk about Mi products and the Mi company," and there's a conscious effort in Mi's communications outside of China to filter out the Chinese influence and make the brand more palatable (and pronounceable) to a wider audience.
"I'm sick and tired of people making sweeping sensationalist statements."
Barra is only a year into his job as leader of Mi's internationalization efforts, but he's already "sick and tired" of hearing his company derided as an Apple copycat. He sees Mi as "an incredibly innovative company" that never stops trying to improve and refine its designs, and the allegations of it copying Apple are "sweeping sensationalist statements because they have nothing better to talk about."
There are many overlaps in design between Apple's products and Mi's: the new Mi 4 has chamfered edges much like the iPhone, and the Mi Pad matches the screen size and resolution of the Retina iPad mini while using the same plastic as in the iPhone 5C. Barra is unapologetic about any of these similarities. "If you have two similarly skilled designers, it makes sense that they would reach the same conclusion," he argues. "It doesn't matter if somebody else has reached the same conclusion" about, for example, a 4:3 screen ratio being preferable to the more cinematic 16:9 that most Android tablets offer. Mi is focused on making the best products that it can and refuses to shy away from a good idea just because Apple might have done it already. "We're not copying Apple's products. End of story."
As to Mi's presentation style and its CEO's professed admiration of Steve Jobs, Barra says "we are not the only ones who have adopted the Steve Jobs presentation style. The whole world has done that." Much of today's Mi 4 introduction was dedicated to design, echoing Apple's style with a focus on the precise machining and craftsmanship required to build the new handset. But Barra is correct in saying that's now a common way to demonstrate the value of good design, which "couldn't be more important" on Mi's list of priorities. It's incorrect, argues the Mi global chief, to bundle that into a sweeping statement about copying Apple.
"One step at a time. One country at a time."
The job of dissuading doubters of Mi's design acumen starts with the new Mi 4, which has been billed as "the fastest and most gorgeous Mi Phone ever." Its predecessor Mi 3 has also started expanding Mi's footprint beyond mainland China, arriving in nearby markets like Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines this year, with sales in India beginning today. Indonesia's the next destination, two months from now, and Barra is doing a lot in his native country of Brazil to start distributing Mi devices there as well.
As fast as Mi's sales, fan base, and global presence may be growing, the company is unlikely to make an appearance in Apple's home market of the US anytime soon. For now, the company's focusing on building out its presence in India with new customer support services and research and development centers. "The US is an incredibly competitive battleground," says Barra, "and we have to pick our battles. One step at a time. One country at a time."