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Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun attends a launch ceremony of the flagship Mi 11 Ultra in Beijing on March 29 March. The company has been pushing into high-end devices in recent years and aims to become the top smartphone brand in the world within three years. Photo: Xiaomi

Xiaomi plans to beat Samsung to become No 1 smartphone brand in three years, but analysts say it faces hurdles

  • Xiaomi must be a top-two smartphone brand in all major markets outside the US to become the world’s top smartphone brand, analysts say
  • Xiaomi is no longer blacklisted by the US, but the company still has almost no presence in the world’s third-largest smartphone market
Beijing-based Xiaomi faces multiple hurdles in pursuit of its goal to dethrone Samsung Electronics as the world’s largest smartphone vendor within three years, as US-China geopolitical tensions and cutthroat competition in the industry threaten its ability to target affluent Western consumers, according to analysts.
Lei Jun, the founder and CEO of the Chinese brand, announced the ambitious plan in his speech on Tuesday night, when the company launched several new products including its flagship Mi Mix 4, the first commercially available phone with a front-facing camera under the display.
Xiaomi’s goal is the same as that of its domestic rival Huawei Technologies Co just a few years ago, when the telecoms equipment maker sought to become the world’s largest smartphone brand by this year. Huawei has since been saddled with mounting sanctions from Washington, preventing it from acquiring advanced chips and damaging its smartphone operations, which opened up new opportunities for other Chinese brands.
Xiaomi announced the new Mi Mix 4 on Tuesday, the first commercially available smartphone with a front-facing camera under the display. Photo: Xiaomi
As Xiaomi has pursued the high-end handset market, it has seen some success. Last year, it supplanted Huawei as the world’s leading Chinese smartphone brand. In the second quarter, the 11-year-old company also topped Apple to become the world’s second-largest smartphone vendor with 17 per cent market share, according to research firm Canalys.

The company became the No 1 vendor in Europe for the first time in the second quarter, as well, shipping nearly 13 million units to reach 25 per cent market share, according to a recent report from Strategy Analytics.

“If Xiaomi wants to hold its current position and even eyes a higher position, on the one hand, it needs to continue to promote inclusive products on a global scale; on the other hand, it must focus on the promotion of high-end flagship smartphones in overseas markets,” said Wang Xi, a research manager at IDC China.

This is a strategy that has helped Samsung stay at the top of the market for so long. While it is best known for its Galaxy phones at the high end of the market, it also ships many lower-end handsets around the world.

Becoming the world’s top smartphone brand is “reachable” for Xiaomi, analysts said, especially if it is able to strengthen its position in China. However, they also said trade tensions continue to cloud the company’s prospects overseas, even though it scored a rare victory in the US earlier this year when it was removed from a trade blacklist that linked it to the Chinese military.

How Xiaomi rose to become China’s No 1 smartphone maker

Samsung’s annual smartphone shipments for the past two years were about 300 million units, while Xiaomi shipped just over 200 million units each year, according to Canalys data. For the Hong Kong-listed company to close the gap, the Chinese market is critical, said Nicole Peng, Canalys vice-president of mobility.

Xiaomi’s annual shipments in China were about 40 million for the past two years, Peng said, so doubling shipments in its home market would go a long way towards achieving its goal. There are also opportunities for the brand in the Middle East and Africa, she said, adding that challenges remain in the US – the world’s third-largest smartphone market, which the company has barely touched – and the enterprise segment, in which Apple and Samsung have done better.

If Xiaomi cannot gain market share in the US, the company will need to be among the top two smartphone vendors in all other key markets, including China, where it trails BBK Electronics-owned brands Vivo and Oppo, said Linda Sui, senior director of wireless smartphone strategies at Strategy Analytics.


The rise of Chinese smartphones

The rise of Chinese smartphones
Initially known for its smartphones that offered high performance for low prices, Xiaomi started pushing into more high-end devices three years ago, when it started to develop the 5G Mi 10. The phone was released last year at a starting price of 3,999 yuan (US$617), its most expensive phone at the time. Despite the pandemic, Lei said Xiaomi has sold 5.77 million Mi 10 handsets as of this month, more than twice the company’s target of 2 million.
The company has since moved into even higher pricing tiers with devices like the Mi 11 Ultra, which starts at 5,999 yuan in China.

“Xiaomi’s high-end path is just beginning now,” Lei said at the three-hour event on Tuesday. “We will continue to invest at any cost.” However, he admitted that the company still has a long way to go and that Xiaomi’s current priority is to cement its position as the world’s No 2 smartphone maker.

Another part of its strategy to move up market is its more experimental Mi Mix line of devices. The company’s latest version is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 999 chip and starts at 4,999 yuan. Other new products unveiled this week include a tablet, a smart speaker and a robot dog called Cyberdog.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xiaomi aims to be top smartphone vendor in 3 years