Once upon a time, about a dozen or so years ago, there was a little up-and-coming smartphone brand called Samsung. It was well-known for its appliances. So, when it announced a new “lifestyle” range of cellphones, many joked that they would be the size of fridges. Instead, Samsung electrified the world with clamshell phones that looked like fashion accessories. Before long, it rolled out messaging phones that were the cutting edge of cool, but went unnoticed by a media that was obsessing over a new smartphone from a company called Apple. Then, suddenly, Samsung was the number one smartphone maker in the world.
Meanwhile, just a few years ago in a galaxy not so far away from there, a little up and coming smartphone brand called Huawei announced it had launched the thinnest smartphone in the world, at half the price of equivalent devices from Samsung and Apple. There was much laughter in the kingdoms of the giants, and from the hip court jesters of tech media. But suddenly, Huawei was the third biggest smartphone maker in the world, and prepared to take its place among the giants.
If it seems like an eternal story that keeps being retold, that’s because it is. In the same way, names that once ruled have been vanquished by newcomers who looked to the future instead of resting in the past. BlackBerry and Nokia had their Kodak moments of glory, and then their Kodak moments of ignominy. None of the wizards or wise men of the courts can tell us which will go next, only that others will follow. And others will rise to greatness.
Now, it is time to tell a new story. Of a name that few outside its homeland can even say correctly. Xiaomi is pronounced “Show me” with the “o” stretched out in a Texan drawl. That may be amusing for critics of a brand that is little known outside its Chinese homeland, but the joke will be on them if they don’t pay attention.
Launched in 2011, it took a mere three years to hit 60-million smartphone sales in a year, mainly through selling high-spec, low-cost phones online in China and India. Briefly, it became the third biggest smartphone maker in the world, before giving up that spot to Huawei. It had a secret weapon up its sleeve, though: the new Redmi brand, launched in 2013. Within three years, it had sold 110-million units. That is more than one phone sold every second. And that is not counting the Mi brand, a wildly popular budget range that takes its name from Mobile Internet and Mission Impossible.
Around a year ago, Xiaomi finally came to Africa, via Johannesburg-based distributor Mobile in Africa (MIA). A few months ago, it brought the Redmi Note 3 into South Africa, positioning it as a viable alternative to the Samsung Note range – at well below half the price of any recent models.
While the self-destruction of Samsung’s Note 7 has left a massive gap in the market for the large-screen Apple iPhone 7 Plus, it has also opened the path to lower cost alternatives. And this is where the Redmi comes into its own. With a 5.5-inch high-definition display, its price point of R3 799 is quite startling, It even beats out its lookalike competitor, the HiSense Infinity Elegance, also a 5.5-inch phone from a Chinese manufacturer. The latter sells for R3 999.
Both have a gold metal design, but the Redmi packs a powerful 4000mAh battery, compared to 3000 mAh on the Elegance. The Redmi also wins in camera quality, with a 16Megapixel rear camera compared to 13MP on the Elegance. This puts its price advantage in full perspective, positioning it as one of the best value-for-money phones on the market.
This didn’t save Xiaomi from seeing its sales plummet globally in the first half of 2016, as nimble new competitors emerged with a mission to out- Xiaomi the previous nimble new competitor.
Last week, however, it came out with guns blazing, with the follow-up to the Redmi Note 3. The Redmi Note 4A was the top-selling smartphone in China on November 11, China’s biggest shopping day, known as “Singles Day” after the two number ones in the date. It claims to have sold no less than one-million of the phones in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, the brand has also opened physical stores across China, making a dramatic departure from its traditional positioning as an online-only brand.
In South Africa, it is sold largely through the mobile networks themselves, while the rest of Africa largely follows the Chinese online model. We can expect to hear a lot more from the brand in the coming year, and consumers may even learn how to say its name.