Thoughts on Xiaomi

The Wall Street Journal had a big scoop this week: some numbers on Xiaomi’s business are apparently being shared with potential investors as it looks to raise money for acquisitions and/or expansion. Until now, I’ve held off on writing anything in-depth about Xiaomi precisely because its financial model and key facts such as its profitability were opaque, and I found it difficult to evaluate its likely impact going forward without that understanding. Now that we have at least a few tantalizing glimpses at Xiaomi’s finances, I feel like it’s finally time to share some of my thoughts.

One of the three most interesting companies in smartphones

Xiaomi is on my list of the three most interesting companies in the smartphone space right now, along with Lenovo and LG. Each of the three is very different and interesting for varying reasons. Lenovo is interesting because it’s transformed itself from a provincial player to a global force in PCs and now sits in the top five in smartphones, tablets and PCs, and rising. With the acquisition of Motorola, it promises to do what all the other Chinese OEMs have failed to do: break into the US in a big way. LG is interesting because it seems like the most viable alternative to Samsung for many carriers looking to diversify their Android vendor base, since it’s not as shaky as HTC or Sony and doesn’t come with the baggage of the Chinese vendors. With some really good phones in the last few months, its shipments have been steadily rising and its margins with them. But Xiaomi remains the most mysterious of the three and, in my opinion, actually the least likely to make headway in the US.

A unique model, different from Apple’s in important ways

Xiaomi’s model is unique, even though it’s often compared to Apple’s. Apple’s model relies on tightly integrated hardware and software it controls end to end and owns exclusively. Services are another crucial component of Apple’s value proposition, and exclusivity has often been a hallmark of those too, though Apple hasn’t been afraid to buy into data and services when it needs to, though allegiances have shifted over time (Google out, Microsoft and Yahoo in, for example). Xiaomi also differentiates itself through the software and services it brings to bear, but its model is different, in that the core of its software is Android, owned by Google and not Xiaomi. This gives the company less control over its own destiny, but obviously also significantly reduces the cost of going to market and maintaining its OS.

The services Xiaomi provides are a hodgepodge of pieces and parts cobbled together from a variety of sources. I loved this in-depth review of a Xiaomi device from July because it highlighted the patchwork nature of what Xiaomi provides (and what the user adds him or herself through the app store). Baidu’s maps and search are apparently defaults, but many of the other services are local equivalents to Google, whose services of course are famously not available in China. This means a major revenue source for Xiaomi is likely fees from the various partners it signs up to fill these slots. Xiaomi’s own software and services focus on the non-revenue-generating aspects such as the weather app and the voice recorder. Yes, Apple has relied on Google in the past for key features, but that was the past and that relationship quickly changed. Apple has always been strong enough to eventually develop its own global ecosystem to rival Google’s, but Xiaomi is far from having that sort of global clout.

A model that won’t work in the US

All this means a model that works well in China will work far less well in many other markets where the Google services are available and where they are the preferred options for users. To the extent Xiaomi thrives on the first- and third-party software and services it layers onto the operating system, that model breaks down quickly in markets where both users and Google will insist Google services are paramount. Xiaomi can get away with not providing the Google services package in China but, if it wants to be an official Android vendor outside of China, it will have to dial down those customizations.

The WSJ article is tantalizingly short on consistent details, providing a precise number here but only a vague allusion there, hinting at margins here but leaving out the comparable figure from a year earlier, and so on. But there’s enough to establish a few key facts: Xiaomi is profitable, the vast majority of its revenues come from handsets, and it spends very little on marketing. To top it all off, it’s doing all this, with higher margins than all but two other vendors, with an average selling price of somewhere around $200, which is unheard of. The services and software piece is likely critical to those margins, as the revenue from its licensing deals is likely mostly profit, but again that model will break down quickly outside of China and a handful of other markets where local services are prized above Google’s. It will certainly break down in the US.

The question of intellectual property

The other thing that’s been widely discussed with regard to Xiaomi is its liberal borrowing of both hardware and software design from other vendors, notably Apple. Some have suggested it won’t be able to expand into the US because of the intellectual property threat outside of China, but I think this may be overblown. Apple in particular has spent years fighting Samsung over patents and allegations of copying and I just can’t see it repeating this process with Xiaomi. It’s too expensive, too time-consuming and ultimately seems to do little good. By the time the court cases are resolved, the devices in question have long since had their day, and the legal wrangling has caused all sorts of private information to emerge. I suspect Xiaomi may be more careful outside of China with some of its design decisions, but I don’t think the threat of litigation is the biggest barrier to its entry into the US and other major Western markets.

Is there a future without a presence in the US?

The biggest question for me then, is not whether Xiaomi can succeed in the US, but whether it can succeed on a global basis without succeeding in the US. That’s generally been tough: the US remains by far one of the largest markets for premium smartphones, and that’s where the margins have been. Though Xiaomi’s model allows it to generate margin elsewhere, premium phones are critical to future success. But we’re seeing an increasing regionalization in smartphones, with major countries such as China and India fostering their own domestic brands and lending otherwise impossible scale to companies operating in a single market. Lenovo’s success in smartphones has come almost entirely from China itself and Chinese vendors are now able to build scale to match (or even exceed) that of global vendors even before they venture overseas. As a result, there’s no doubt in my mind Xiaomi can continue to grow in both size and influence as a smartphone vendor over the next few years. But I believe its success will come despite its failure to break into the US, not because of success here.

For further analysis of Xiaomi and the offerings they provide beyond hardware, see Ben Bajarin’s video analysis of the company.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

659 thoughts on “Thoughts on Xiaomi”

  1. a partnership with Google for their suite of App in exchange for a share in advertising revenue is also a possibility, which is exactly what One Plus One is doing with their cyanogenmod.

    one aspect about Xiaomi profits you forget to mention is the fact that the price of their phone hasn’t changed at all, at a time when the price of component is declining rapidly, which means more profit per phone over time.

  2. The problem with Xiaomi is the same with Samsung. They sell ONLY Hardware.
    The future is Software-Hardware Integration bundled with an ecosystem of Content (Music, Videos, Movies etc.) which was pioneered by Apple.

    Something that potentially only 3 companies can do it presently: Apple, Google(Nexus – They can start by stopping collaboration with other companies), Microsoft(Nokia)

    Look at Samsung, Their profit for this quarter fell by over 50%; without Software-Hardware Integration no company can control their market.

    1. Xiaomi does not only sell hardware. Xiaomi has been creating their own ecosystem. No Google drive – just MiCloud, no Google App Store – just the Mi Store.

    2. Watch the video analysis link at the bottom of this article and I highlight the things they are doing beyond hardware.

      1. It doesn’t seem that anybody has actually read the WSJ article. As they report it, Xiaomi makes appx. 1% of it’s profits from “others” i.e. software etc, not exactly earth shattering. And like Lenovo, their profit margin seems to be in the 2% range, again hardly earth shattering.

        One assumes that they have been able to make a “small” profit from an early stage, because they cut out the retailer and presumably save themselves 30% of the retail price and have minimal advertising costs, probably saving them another 10% of the retail price.

        The spec sheet, seems “stock” android, nothing bespoke or cutting edge and the designs “fast follower”. So, we have, all in all a Samsung lite. Doesn’t seem like a particularly bold, novel or sustainable strategy.

        1. I think you’re right on target. As far as I can tell, interest in Xiaomi is because they do good hardware at good prices. Neither their Android variant (well, it’s mostly a launcher, Xiaomi has Google Play outside China) nor their ‘net services (sorry, ecosystem) seem to be anything other than required items, not motivators. If on top of that these services’ profitability is marginal… I wonder: do Chinese OEMs *wish* that Google had, like Apple, accepted the Chinese government’s conditions to do business there, and saved them the trouble of having to build me-too ecosystems ?

          1. Obarthelemy I feel humble, that you actually agree with me on an issue. I think that some people are just desperate for an anti-Apple and will jump on any bandwagon going, especially if trendy! I would however, view Lenovo as an un-sexy “one-to-watch” in the tech space. They do seem to be hoovering up brands and making steady, unspectacular progress and no claims to high margin business.

          2. I’m amazed at analysts’ insistence that everyone be Apple. Car analogy: everyone should be BMW. That’s forgetting all the failed luxury brands, and that Toyota, Nissan, et al. had/ are having a good run too. Upmarket is not a panacea, it’s just a different set of challenges, and as much if not more risk of failure.
            I’m closely watching Lenovo too, their Yoga tablets are an interesting and superior form factor, their software is unpretentious and high-quality… only their phones are uninspiring, but it’s been a while since any phone has been, the Galaxy Note line is the last original one.

  3. This means a major revenue source for Xiaomi is likely fees from the various partners it signs up to fill these slots.

    I find this very intriguing. We know that Google pays hundreds of millions of USD per year to Mozilla to be the default search engine on Firefox. That’s a lot of money considering that most smartphone manufacturers are struggling to make any profit at all. In fact, collecting fees from service companies might eventually be the only way Android or AOSP manufacturers could gain significant profits.

    My hypothesis has been that Baidu and other Chinese service companies will most certainly try to break out of China, and to do that, they have to push AOSP. This is because Google will demand premium placement for Google Android certification, meaning that Baidu and others will be pushed out to the secondary screens. In order to do this, I expect them to hand out fees to their partners like they are doing for Xiaomi.

    That is why I am very interested in how Baidu and Alibaba will try to expand outside of China. I see them as a potential driving force of AOSP adoption in the markets that they target.

  4. Nice article and you’ve got Xiaomi pretty much nailed. It’s amazing that such a small Chinese Company could duplicate Apple’s rags to riches business model in such a huge country, overwhelming all the giants in the industry in China. Timing is sometimes everything and with Xiaomi it certainly plays a part with them taking what they’ve obviously got right in their business model in China and taken it to India and doing well there too.

    Yet the USA is not Brazil, China or India and some strategies that worked well there, won’t work here. Perhaps the most innovative ploy used by Xiaomi is it’s total reliance on the World Wide Web as a place of business and a means of marketing. Having no physical presence, means no leasing or debt for property used in stores or factories. Much along the lines of import and export business in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Where all you really needed was a warehouse, if that with “drop shipping” getting so popular to make bankable profits. They sell directly to consumers and that is a win/win situation for consumers!

    Marketing costs are so low that they’re almost non-existent with most of their selling being done online and delivered to their customer’s front door in an increasingly crowded environment. This makes their business even more efficient than if they had massive numbers of physical stores they owned themselves. These are the best ways that Xiaomi uses to compete and they could easily transfer into the US Market. It’s working in India right now and it’s these tactics of no wherehousing and only putting up for sale what is already manufactured and distributable that one-ups both Samsung and Apple. Who were ranked a close #1 and #2 in Marketing expenditures last year as evidenced in court documents in lawsuits.

    Without an Olympics to sponsor for Samsung, this year these two are again neck n neck in that aspect. Their fiscal year R&D and CAPEX spending is their biggest separation point between them and Xiaomi. With Xiaomi only spending what’s necessary to bring a well designed product to market and Zero on any real CAPEX or marketing, Xiaomi could easily blow out both Apple and Samsung in the USA market.

    If…. and only if they can transfer the momentum they’re gathering in China and India and bring it across the Pacific with the same kind of remarkable mass appeal, both the giants in mobile industry better take heed. Because once they make that trip with the same business model in tact, they’ll be pretty much unstoppable and their profits will skyrocket here greater than in their home market! …..with their home being all online globally!!!

  5. “The services and software piece is likely critical to those margins”. When the Wall Street journal says that 94% of the profits comes from handsets, does the 94% include licensing deals or is it purely profit made from the sales of phones?

      1. Then, why does the author state that these deals are critical to these margins, when they don’t even make 6% of the profit if we account for revenue from sales of application and themes?

        1. Because they will not become the company they want to profiting mostly in hardware. That is not a sustainable business model for them.

          They are also very clear their strategy is to be an internet services company. They have been clear from the start they aren’t trying to make money in hardware.

          My overall point in this article, however, was to hit the point that hardware only business models are not sustainable for those who wish to connect the next billion consumers.

          1. I see, thank you.

            Since you’ve been so helpful, I’m doing a SWOT analysis on Xiaomi for an assignment and I was wondering if you could suggest any threats – apart from this one, of course – that I could use?

            Thank you!

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