I grew up on the east coast of the United States and have spent the majority of my adult life in the midwest. And I remember the first time that I visited the west coast for a business trip, a few friends of mine that had lived in Southern California told me that I had to try In-N-Out Burger. They told me that it is by far the best fast food burger you could ever have. My skepticism rose as I thought how good could a fast-food hamburger really be? It was not just the quality of the food that impressed me but the layout and feel of the restaurant that just felt like this was the way that fast food should be. As I ventured back home after the trip, I felt two emotions. The first was the way that In-N-Out’s business model just made sense compared to McDonald’s or Burger King. The second was regret that this was exclusive to the west coast. Where the rest of the country was denied this experience.
I thought about this recently when seeing news of new wireless over the air charging tech that is being developed by Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. The idea seemed so genius, that your phone can charge while in the vicinity of this base that will send waves that charge the battery without having to plug anything into the phone or to place the phone on a wireless charging pad. It is this sort of innovation that the Chinese company has now become known for, perhaps being the last supplier of smartphone innovation. And then I thought how much of a shame it is that we here in the United States are denied easy access to this level of innovation from perhaps the most cutting edge smartphone maker in the world.
Who Is Xiaomi?
If you are reading this and live in the United States, there is a good chance that the name Xiaomi is one that you have never heard of. This is understandable because the Beijing-based company has never sold its phones here in the United States directly. There have always been ways to get their devices through third-party resellers, but most people in the US do not buy their phones this way. As a result, the company is a relative unknown in the minds of many American consumers.
Xiaomi has been making phones for nearly a decade when it released the Xiaomi Mi 1 in the summer of 2011. The company has focused most of its sales and marketing efforts in its home market China and also India, which is the largest growing smartphone market in the world. These efforts have paid off as it has become the top phone maker in China and the second most popular in India. Xiaomi accomplished this by making phones that offered top of the line specifications at a lower price than offerings from competitors like Samsung, LG, and Huawei.
The way that Xiaomi tries to make money from hardware is by selling it at near cost and hoping that customers will buy-in to their software services and also by serving advertisements throughout the experience to make more revenue. This strategy, particularly at the entry-level, has allowed the company to experiment with features and take risks with its flagship devices and also to venture into other electronics categories where it has spurred innovations. These innovations from Xiaomi have sometimes taken years to be implemented by companies that sell products here in the United States, and sometimes they never come here at all.
A Leader in Innovation
Xiaomi has implemented many new and radical technologies but the two facets that stick out the most to me center around smartphone design and charging technology. Mainly because these are two areas that the company has excelled while the manufacturers that dominate the US seem to continually lag behind.
These days in smartphones, there has seemed to be an obsession with phones screen to body ratio. Where having fewer bezels to maximize screen real estate while keeping phones pocketable. Xiaomi started this trend in earnest in 2016 with the release of the Xiaomi Mi Mix which boasted an 84% screen to body ratio. For comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7 released in the same year had a 72% screen to body ratio. It wasn’t until the following year with the Galaxy S8 series that Samsung was able to match what Xiaomi was doing. This has become the trend throughout the industry and it was all started years ago with Xiaomi.
More recently, the Beijing company has sought to push the limits even further with its Mi Mix Alpha and new quad-waterfall display concept phone. While it can be argued that these phones are merely concepts, it shows a constant need to innovate and come up with new ideas. Where manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have chosen to play it safe. Xiaomi is showing us that new hardware paradigms are very possible, but our favorite brands have not been pushing the envelope enough.
The other area that Xiaomi has separated from companies in the west is through its various fast charging technologies. While companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung have been content to offer a maximum of 30W fast charging solutions Xiaomi has continued to push the envelope with what is possible. With the Mi 10 Ultra, the company unveiled a 120W fast charging solution that will completely charge a phone in 23 minutes. The company has also unveiled plans of offering high wattage wireless charging, reaching as high as 80W. Meanwhile, most other companies have not gone further than 12W fast wireless charging.
Pushing the boundaries of these accepted norms gives the end-user if they are an enthusiast, a feeling that they are dealing with a company that takes innovating seriously. Xiaomi has also been at the forefront of offering 108MP camera modules on a smartphone, a move that Samsung has also implemented in its Ultra line of phones. They were also one of the first companies to implement high refresh displays that have now become the norm on higher-end phones. Yet we are denied this innovation here in the United States, and some might wonder why that is.
Politics & Culture
In my estimation, there are two primary reasons why we have not seen Xiaomi phones here in the United States. The first is the brand culture of the United States versus that of East Asia, and the second is the political tension between the United States and China that has led many Americans to be untrusting of any Chinese tech company. The end result is that we are missing out on an option for consumer tech that is very much innovative and worthwhile.
The first part of this equation of exclusion is the way that we view companies, and more specifically tech companies here in the United States. We do not celebrate innovation in smartphones and other electronics the way that other countries might. We are very quick to call a new feature a gimmick when it deviates from the norm unless an already popular company comes up with the idea. In many ways, there is a name brand feeling to electronics here in the United States when it comes to consumer electronics.
It is this brand name syndrome that has led to hesitation to try brands like OnePlus and LG on the smartphone side of things. They try different innovations that are not accepted by the brands that are staples in this country, and thus they fail. It is an easy scenario to imagine then if a company from China like Xiaomi were to enter the US market. They would be looked at with a critical eye because it is so new.
The other cultural aspect here is that Xiaomi’s pricing strategy of selling the hardware at cost and relying on services revenue would be rejected here in the US. A massive undercutting of prices in this market draws suspicion of quality. And furthermore, introducing a new services ecosystem to US consumers will always be an uphill battle for a new company in the market. For instance, consider the Bixby experiment from Samsung. Once Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon Alexa were entrenched as the incumbents, no one took Samsung’s efforts at AI assistant services seriously and as a result, Bixby has languished. One can imagine that the same result would befall Mi services here in the US.
The second challenge of Xiaomi having a presence in the United States is one that is posed as a result of the tensions between the United States and China. Over the last 5 years or so, the United States government has been at odds with the Chinese government. As the two preeminent superpowers in the world, the two have been at odds with one another to get an edge on the world stage. This has resulted in higher taxation, tariffs on imports, and the banning of companies. Much of this modern warfare has been engaged around the tech sector, which is thriving in China. More specifically, as it relates to the proliferation of 5G on a global scale. Where the US has backed Ericsson and Nokia’s infrastructure, China has put its weight behind local powers ZTE and Huawei. As a countermeasure, the US government has put these companies on what it calls an “entity list” which bans these companies from using American-made software or hardware (such as Google’s Android operating system or Microsoft’s Windows operating system for instance). Pew Research Center has a great outline of the effects of this conflict on a global scale that you can read here.
But how does this impact Xiaomi? After all, it is ZTE and Huawei that are being banned, not Xiaomi. This comes from the justification of why these companies are being banned from the US government. Despite the evidence indicating that these tensions are from a race for infrastructure, the public statement centers around fears that the Chinese government has ultimate control over these companies. And Xiaomi has had these accusations thrown its way from the US government much like their rivals Huawei have. Xiaomi of course denies these claims, But the people of the United States, much like their government, find themselves conflicted on what to believe. As this article from the Verge shows, there are many different schools of thought on this issue.
It can be inferred that there is a bit of a phobia towards Chinese tech companies as a result of these accusations. So much so, that a Chinese tech conglomerate like Xiaomi would have a hard time breaking through. In fact, the only Chinese phone maker that has had any bit of success in this market is OnePlus. But because they are buried under the arm of their parent company BBK, they have seemed to avoid criticism. The talking point of both political parties is that China is bad, and while this narrative continues to a talking point no Chinese tech company is going to make an effort to penetrate the US market.
So where does that leave us? Quite frankly, to a tech enthusiast, it feels like the In-N-Out situation all over again. Where we see the innovation and the technology being developed by a company like Xiaomi but will not be able to ever take advantage of it due to outside circumstances and political motivations. In a modern world that is supposed to embrace advancement and innovative minds, we have shunned ourselves from the next frontier of technological developments. This in a way feels a bit like Japanese isolationism, driven by fear and dictated by excessive complacency. In the end, we are all pawns in this missing out on what is possible because the kings and queens of this world are too busy strategizing their power.
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