Until a few years ago, ‘Chinese phone’ used to be a derogatory term for the Indian middle class. The term signified the cheap, no-brand phones bought in dodgy shops and used by the domestic servants, the farm labourers and the like. But then Xiaomi happened. With its wily marketing, online-only flash sales and the hype that accompanied the company’s entry into the country, it had single-handedly managed to ward off most of the ill will towards Chinese phone makers. Now along with Xiaomi, upstarts like One Plus and big name brands like Lenovo are competing for the pockets of the Indian middle class. This success is forcing the Chinese companies to deal with an issue that they never had to bother about before. The copycat problem.
And when we talk about Chinese copycats, the first company that comes to mind is Xiaomi. The company is just four years old. But in this period, it has sold enough phones to be counted among the top five phone manufacturers in the world. In 2014 alone, it has seen an astonishing 227 per cent growth by selling 61 million phones, and after its debut last year, it has sold one million phones in five months just in India alone. Its users swear by its phones. They are well-made, come packed with the best components available on the market and are sold at cost, so are very affordable. Before coming to India, the company only operated in China and coming to India was a timely warning for it not to step into the western markets. It made the mistake of underestimating the Indian judicial system in thinking it is like the Chinese one that will turn a blind eye to any irregularities. That was why it was banned by the Delhi High Court from selling its phones before being allowed to sell some models that run some particular chips. The reason: a patent infringement complaint by Ericsson, the Swedish telecom giant.
Ericsson’s patents called Standard, Essential Patents are the kind of patents that are an essential part of any mobile phone and for which other manufacturers like Apple and Samsung pay patent fees. Xiaomi doesn’t because presumably it can’t afford to, a side-effect of selling high-spec phones at rock-bottom prices. According to Ericsson’s statement, Xiaomi ‘after more than three years of attempts to engage in a licensing conversation in good faith… continues to refuse to respond’.
It is not just patents. Xiaomi is obsessed with copying. A company seemingly capable of making great, cheap handsets tries to mimic Apple. It is not just phones that look like iPhones, tablets that look like iPads and media streaming boxes that look like Apple TV. It goes as far as the CEO dressing like Steve Jobs and showing a slide with ‘one more thing’ in English at its product announcements that are entirely in Chinese.
It is not just Xiaomi. Almost every phone manufacturer from China is culpable of lazy copying. Mainly from Apple and sometimes from Samsung. And it is not just Xiaomi which is essentially a newborn baby. Some of the biggest names in the business like Lenovo and Huawei are afflicted with the same copying syndrome. After getting away scot-free in their native country, it seems like they are choosing India as their big destination not only for increasing their market size but also to test how far they can go before attracting the ire of the likes of Apple. Which is going to make this year a very interesting one to watch.
Matham is a tech geek. Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham