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Why Xiaomi's small first step into America is a big deal

Why Xiaomi's small first step into America is a big deal


China's biggest smartphone maker is getting outside its comfort zone

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Xiaomi has become one of the biggest smartphone makers in the world, despite having zero presence in the United States. And while the company isn't planning to launch its phones here any time soon — international VP Hugo Barra made that very clear in Xiaomi's first major press event in the US today in San Francisco — the company is getting ready to launch a US sales site in a few months and start selling some of its products here. It's a small first step into the American marketplace, but one that could foreshadow a bigger presence here in the states.

Today's event was a first step for Xiaomi to raise awareness of its brand in America — and to boast. The company doubled its revenue to $12 billion in 2014. "We felt that coming right after launching (the Mi Note) in China was actually ideal, because this is the best product we've ever made," Barra told me following the company's presentation. "Our devices are really nice, but this is ultimately nice."

And even though US consumers won't be able to buy the Mi Note any time soon, Barra and the Xiaomi team still are keen to get their many other products in the hands of consumers here. "The US consumer is probably the most demanding consumer, with the highest quality bar and the most informed opinions of anyone anywhere in the world," Barra says. "Part of the reason why we want to be here is because we want to enter that feedback loop. We want to hear what people think about our products, we want to get feedback and improve our products everywhere (they are sold)."

"We want to hear what people think about our products."

The launch of in the United States is part of the company's ambition to become ubiquitous, even though it's clear that will take time. "There are certain things that we're going to be able to do faster than others," Barra says, "and we don't necessarily have to do the same thing all the time everywhere. So we're going to try some new things. We've gotta start from somewhere."

Xiaomi Mi Note hands-on photos

Barra was also quick to dispel the notion that concerns about intellectual property lawsuits are keeping Xiaomi out of the US market — despite the fact that comparisons to Apple's industrial design remain unavoidable. He said that IP was one out of "probably 20 or 30 things" on the company's list of concerns. "It's software localization, hardware localization, testing and certification, packaging, customer service, after-sale service — it's all incredibly complex work," Barra says. He also said it would take hundreds of people on the ground in the United States to do the work, and the company isn't ready to commit those resources.

Despite those challenges, the company's products aren't all that far off from being ready for US consumers. Barra dismissed the notion that Xiaomi has been forking Android and not working all that closely with Google on its devices. "To be clear, we are an Android partner like all of the other OEMs," he says. "We distribute Google services in every market we're in, outside of China." (Google's apps and services are still largely blocked throughout China.)

There's no timeline for a full US launch, but Xiaomi is getting its feet wet

Rather than replace Android, Xiaomi's MIUI is meant to augment the experience in a lot of ways that are tailored to the company's massive Chinese audience. Barra noted during his presentation that lots of spam calls in China ring people's phones once and then hang up — so Xioami's phones mute the first ring of unknown numbers. Other features came from the company's fans, who regularly bombard Xiaomi with suggestions. Since the company pushes out a software update every week, there's always something new for fans to check out. The features might not always be ground-breaking, but the company does appear to have a uniquely give-and-take relationship with the people that use its products.

That spirit is something the company wants to keep intact if and when it truly goes global, and might be one of the ways Xiaomi will differentiate itself from its many peers. "I really do think that to launch products here, we need to bring a lot of our services which are only in China today," Barra says — and he's not just talking about phone features. He's talking about everything from marketing to manufacturing and distribution channels, not to mention having robust customer service and a way for potential customers to try its phones before buying. "We really need to bring a lot of them here and do something fresh and unique to differentiate our products and build a community."

While success is far from guaranteed, Xiaomi's rapid rise to a dominant position in the global smartphone market — without having a truly global presence — means that Apple and Samsung should be ready for a new challenge in markets they have typically dominated. Xiaomi will be playing there, likely sooner than later.