Xiaomi is one of the hottest smartphone companies in the world today. Just 5 years old, it has rapidly grown to become the most valuable tech startup on earth, worth around $US46 billion (£30.9 billion), which is more than Uber, Snapchat, or SpaceX.
Xiaomi, founded by CEO Lei Ju, is often referred to as the “Apple of China,” not least because of the famed devotion of its fans. The company holds worldwide holds flash sales for its customers and throws them parties in expensive nightclubs — and they love the company for it.
But Xiaomi is like Apple another way. Many of its products have an awfully similar look to the Cupertino company’s own models, prompting Apple design chief Jony Ive to accuse the Chinese company of copying its designs.
“I don’t see it as flattery,” Ive told an audience last year. “I see it as theft. I have to be honest. The last thing I think is ‘Oh, that is flattering…’ I think it’s theft and it’s lazy. I don’t think it’s OK at all.”
But is Ive’s accusation fair?
Business is booming for Xiaomi. It's the biggest smartphone company in China, and the third-largest in the world.
Founder and CEO Lei Jun is largely responsible for the smartphone maker's meteoric rise. He's a charismatic figure, who introduces new products in carefully choreographed keynotes, often wearing his signature outfit -- blue jeans and a black top.
It's no accident: Lei Jun has consciously modelled himself after late Apple CEO Steve Jobs after reading about him at college, according to Bloomberg.
The founder has even co-opted the Apple co-founder's famous 'one more thing...' line for the end of his presentations.
Now let's look at some products. The Mi 4, currently selling online for $285 (£191), has chamfered steel edges and a speaker grill made out of tiny holes.
For the Mi 4, Lei Jun admitted he 'went to the same companies that made the metallic-framed Apple iPhone to see what they could do for him,' the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
It has an uncanny resemblance to the Apple 'Magic Trackpad,' even though the two devices have different functions.
Xiaomi has hit back at accusations of theft, with exec Hugo Barra telling Verge that 'we're not copying Apple's products. End of story.'
But Xiaomi definitely uses a similar aesthetic to Apple. Here's the teaser for a launch event Xiaomi is holding this week.
And here's the teaser for the Apple Watch launch event, which had the same floral motif and pastel colour scheme.
Last year, designer John Gruber pointed out an interesting case of copycatting on his blog Daring Fireball. First, take a look at the camera on a promotional shot of Xiaomi's Mi 3 phone below.
Now look at the logo for Aperture, a photo-editing suite made by Apple. The camera in the Mi3 photo is clearly a skewed and edited version of this lens. Gruber notes that the 'Designed by Apple in California' text has even been cropped out in Xiaomi's promotional photo.
This is not the first instance where Xiaomi has been accused of ripping off images. TechCrunch cites numerous examples from the past in which Xiaomi has stolen photos from the internet for use in its promotional materials, often passing them off as photos taken using its smartphones.
Not all of Xiaomi's products have an obvious Apple analogue, of course. Xiaomi sells the Mi TV, a 3D smart TV. It's an area Apple hasn't explored before.
There's also the Mi Band, a bluetooth fitness tracker. It may not be as sophisticated as the Apple Watch, but its battery lasts a month (versus the Watch's 18 hours) and it sells well.
Intended to compete with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, it eschews the Apple aesthetic completely in favour of a distinctive, clean design.
And while the device isn't available in the West, reviews have suggested it may actually be superior to Apple's smartphones.
Not yet. Xiaomi exec Hugo Barra says the company doesn't plan to expand to the West for a 'few years.'
But when it does, there's reason to be worried. Almost uniquely for an Android phone, Xiaomi has a devoted fan-base to rival Apple's own. Combined with devices around half the price of Apple's, that adds up to a serious threat.
But for now, there's one final irony: Xiaomi has fallen prey to copycats itself. The company claims if it weren't for counterfeit versions of its smartphones, 'sales would be double or triple.'
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