Xiaomi to partner on 'smart' sneakers

Partner Li-Ning, a sneakers maker that burst onto the international scene at the 2008 Olympics, is back to mainly selling in China. It's hoping that a deal with rising-star Xiaomi will give it another shot.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
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A pair of 'dumb' Li-Ning sneakers. Thomas Pellicer/Li-Ning

Smartphones, smartwatches, smart...sneakers?

One of China's most popular smartphone makers, Xiaomi, will partner with sports brand Li-Ning to build smart running shoes, the companies announced Monday, according to Reuters.

Li-Ning, a China-based sports equipment and sneakers company, will partner with Xiaomi's fitness-focused wearables company, Huami, to develop smart sneakers with a chip in the sole to provide feedback to wearers on running progress and form. A related app will track running achievements, according to Reuters.

Li-Ning is perhaps best known in the US for its viral marketing efforts at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The company arranged a slew of sponsorships with athletes and the company's founder, Li Ning, lit the torch at the event.

Soon after, Li-Ning's sales soared as consumers around the globe started to take interest. However, over the last few years, Li-Ning's revenue has slipped and the company announced in January that it would post a net loss for the third consecutive year. The company's troubles are numerous, but chief among them is is that Li-Ning is seeing demand mainly come from its home base of China; worldwide demand for its products has fallen since the Olympics.

Xiaomi, meanwhile, is soaring. The company is best known as one of the leading Chinese handset makers, offering products that look and feel like those from Apple, Samsung and others, but come at a far more affordable price. Xiaomi produces many other types of electronics, including a wireless router, a set-top box and an action camera similar to the GoPro. In 2014, the company's revenue was $12 billion -- a giant sum considering the firm was founded in 2010.

Getting into the smart sneaker niche would put the companies in competition with a wide range of fitness and activity trackers, including products like the Nike FuelBand and the Jawbone Up. Nike, a Li-Ning competitor on the sneaker side, also offers its Nike+ apps like the Running App, Fuel App and Training Club. All of those apps are designed to track a person's running and provide similar information. Nike, however, doesn't have a "smart" sneaker that it's currently selling.

The Li-Ning smart sneakers will take a page out of Xiaomi's book by providing the sneakers at an "affordable price," the company said. Exactly when the sneakers will launch and for how much is unknown, but it appears at this point that they will be available first in China. If the sneakers are successful, they might make their way to other countries, including the US, where Li-Ning has tried to develop a presence.

Li-Ning was for a time an official marketing partner with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and had a handful of prominent stars wearing its sneakers, including the now-retired Shaquille O'Neal. The only major NBA player with a Li-Ning deal right now is Miami Heat superstar Dwayne Wade.

Neither Xiaomi nor Li-Ning immediately respond to a request for comment.