Xiaomi, the biggest tech giant you've never heard of, is coming to the US

Xiaomi, the largest phone maker in China and third-largest in the world, will begin selling headphones and smart wristbands in the US this year.

Jason Lee/Reuters/File
Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun holds Mi Note phones at a launch event in Beijing on January 15, 2015.

In just four years, Chinese tech company Xiaomi has become the third biggest smart phone maker in the world.

Mention the company’s name stateside, though, and you’ll likely get a blank look in return. Xiaomi’s phones are well-known across Asia, but the company hasn’t made any moves to enter American or European markets – until now.

Xiaomi is starting (very) small. Over the next few months it will begin selling accessories such as headphones and smart wristbands in the US, according to a Reuters report.

Xiaomi president Lin Bin and vice president Hugo Barra, formerly the head of Android at Google, gave a presentation to reporters in San Francisco on Thursday, but didn’t mention whether the company has plans to sell its Mi smart phones and tablets in American stores. Xiaomi will take its first step outside of Asia later this year when it begins selling Mi devices in Brazil, South America’s largest economy.

Xiaomi almost certainly wants to test the waters in the US before deciding whether to sell its devices there. Mobile companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have more control over the US phone market than Asian telecom companies have over their markets. The system of carrier subsidies could make it difficult for Xiaomi to sell smart phones as cheaply as it would like. (In China, the company’s flagship Mi Note phone retails for $370, which is about half the cost of a comparable iPhone 6 Plus off contract.)

The elephant in the room here is Apple. Xiaomi has drawn criticism for allegedly lifting design elements from Apple products, including the construction of the iPad Mini and the iPhone. Even the Android-based MiUI operating system found on Xiaomi’s products looks a lot like iOS. Apple has an immense amount of influence over the US phone market. If Xiaomi were to introduce its devices in the US, it would be directly competing with Apple, and would perhaps open itself up to more direct criticism that elements of its company and its products are borrowed from Cupertino.

That said, Xiaomi has been sending a clear message since last year: our products stand on their own merits. The company’s latest designs are more unique. Founder Lei Jun has eased back on the Steve Jobs jeans-and-black-shirt look for presentations. And Xiaomi has focused on engaging directly with customers through the Mi Forum, a company-sponsored network with 40 million users. “We’re friends with our fans,” Mr. Lin told reporters on Thursday.

If Xiaomi decides to sell its devices in the US, it’ll be going toe-to-toe with Apple for the first time. But by expanding its geographic scope slowly, Xiaomi is giving customers a chance to become familiar with its brand first. And if the company does decide to come stateside (and figures out a way to continue selling Mi phones and tablets at a fraction of what customers are used to) it could be a powerful competitor to Apple and Samsung.

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