China smartphone maker Xiaomi wants to take a bite out of Apple

China smartphone maker Xiaomi wants to take a bite out of Apple
Three models of China's Xiaomi Mi phones are pictured during their launch.

SHANGHAI - "In the next five to 10 years, Xiaomi has the opportunity to become the world's number one smartphone company," Lei Jun told the Chinese-organised World Internet Conference.

Xiaomi, which takes its name from the Chinese word for millet, has excelled in China's cut-throat smartphone market by delivering high-performance products at cheap prices.

In less than five years, the Chinese company has become the world's number three smartphone vendor, behind only Apple and South Korea's Samsung, shipping 17.3 million phones in the third quarter of 2014, according to International Data Corp (IDC).

Xiaomi claims sales of more than 61 million smartphones last year, up 227 per cent from 2013, with turnover more than doubling to US$12 billion.

But critics say the firm has simply copied the look of Apple's iPhones, thriving because of weak intellectual property protection in China.

Apple has never taken legal action against Xiaomi, but in a veiled reference to the firm, the US giant's senior vice president of design Jony Ive has called similarities between their products "theft," the Wall Street Journal reported.

A spokesman for Xiaomi's marketing department told AFP: "We hope these biased people can put down their tinted glasses, examine Xiaomi's practices and experience our products and then make a fair appraisal."

'Millet and rifles'

Beijing-based Xiaomi has come from nowhere, growing from a 2010 start-up in Zhongguancun - China's "Silicon Valley" - to a company valued at US$45 billion after its latest funding round in December, when the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Jack Ma was among the investors.

Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Lei, 45, has a fondness for black tops and jeans, and he told a panel at the Internet conference in Wuzhen in November: "In this magic land, we produced not only a company like Alibaba, but a small miracle like Xiaomi."

A serial entrepreneur and angel investor, he has a string of successful companies and investments, including software developer Kingsoft and online retailer Joyo.com, which was bought by Amazon.

Explaining why he chose the name Xiaomi, Lei has said: "We want to conquer the world using millet and rifles," using a phrase coined by Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

The second character "mi" can also stand for mobile Internet or "mission impossible" in English, he added.

One analyst called Lei "the last but most important ingredient for the success of Xiaomi."

The firm has scooped up talent from Microsoft, Motorola and Yahoo, with president Lin Bin and global operations vice president Hugo Barra hailing from search-engine Google.

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