Chinese mobile devices maker Xiaomi is many things, says former Google executive Hugo Barra who this month celebrates his first anniversary as vice president of the Beijing-based company. But it's no copycat.
Xiaomi is young, at four years old, and still working to expand beyond China into new markets such as India and Brazil, where its low-priced smartphones and tablets are intended to appeal to budget-conscious buyers. It's also trying to capitalize on a business model that revolves around selling more than 1,000 products at or near cost -- everything from mobile phones to accessories to television sets to stuffed animals -- in its quest to "make small amounts of money" on everything it offers.
But don't dismiss it as an imitator, riding on design innovations brought to market by Apple with the iPhone and iPad, said Barra, who Tuesday countered comments by Apple's design chief Jony Ive accusing Xiaomi of design "theft" and of "being lazy." That Barra, who already came to Xiaomi's defense over Ive's comments at a Vanity Fair conference on October 9, decided to speak out again shows the issue is far from being settled.
"Our designers, our engineers, are inspired by great products and great design out there. In today's world, who isn't? " Barra said at The Wall Street Journal's Live technology conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. "Point me to a product in our industry that has a completely unique design language? You're not going to be able to find one."
Barra said he was a "huge Apple fan" and called the iPhone 6, which went on sale in September, "the world's most beautiful smartphone ever designed." But while Apple is the "world's design mecca," it also gets its design inspiration from others. The iPhone 6 borrowed "design language" from smartphone maker HTC, Barra added, echoing comments he made to the Economic Times of India.
"I think it's great that Apple took existing ideas that were very good and added their design twist on top," Barra said today. "That's what they do. That's what we do."
Ive, who oversees Apple's hardware and software design and is credited with helping create iconic products including the iPhone, iPad, iMac and soon-to-be-released Apple Watch, shared a different view when asked about alleged copy-cat design by companies including Xiaomi.
"I don't see it as flattery," he said. "When you're doing something for the first time, you don't know it's going to work. You spend seven or eight years working on something, and then it's copied. I have to be honest, the first thing I can think, all those weekends that I could have at home with my family but didn't. I think it's theft, and it's lazy."
Ive's comments come after Apple spent the past few years in court around the world, defending its design and development work in its iOS mobile software in patent disputes with arch rival Samsung, the world's No. 1 maker of smartphones. The iPhone accounts for more than 50 percent of Apple's sales, and Apple CEO Tim Cook told WSJ conference attendees on Monday that the smartphone will continue to be the company's main sales and profit driver for the next three to five years.
Xiaomi, whose devices run Google's Android mobile OS, has become the world's fifth largest smartphone maker behind Samsung, Apple, Huawei and Lenovo, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. Its, including the Redmi Note which retails at around $154 (£95 or AU$170), as close to cost as it can, and then turn a profit over time when manufacturing costs drop.
"We just fundamentally believe that when it costs you $200 to make something, you shouldn't sell it for $600...The business model is to make a little bit of money where we can," Barra said in a not-so-subtle dig at Apple. "Innovation is not a luxury item. Innovation is for everyone."
CNET's Aloysius Low contributed to this report.
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