Xiaomi’s new device is a ‘butter-fingers’ nightmare

For those who are prone to dropping their smartphone, the Xiaomi Mi MIX Alpha is not, and we repeat, not for you.

Innovation in form-factor has been largely non-existent over the last few years, though Xiaomi is really pushing the boat out with its latest smartphone. The device has a screen-to-body ratio of 180.6%, thanks to a surround screen, offering no hope of relief for those who drop their phones.

It will attract headlines and the engineering might gain applause, but you really have to wonder what the point actually is. How many times have you been using your smartphone and thought ‘if only there was a screen which I can’t see, that would complete my mobile experience’.

“Carrying the original Mi MIX exploration spirit, when Mi MIX Alpha lights up – the front, side, and back of the phone are almost entirely display,” Xiaomi wrote on its blog.

“The Surround Display allows Mi MIX Alpha to achieve a screen-to-body ratio that reaches an astonishing 180.6%.”

Now we’re all for ‘concept’ models to test the boundaries of the future, but these exploratory prototypes have to be based in reality. This is not.

The Mi MIX Alpha features a 108MP camera with the highest resolution, highest pixel count, and the largest sensor found on any smartphone available (Xiaomi claims), while inside the device you will find the Snapdragon 855+ mobile SoC, supporting all 5G bands of the three major carriers on Mainland China.

Although the device is only available in China for the moment, let’s look at what this is in all honesty. It is a gimmick which likely has no financial ambition to rake in profits. We suspect the outcome is simply to demonstrate how smart the designers and engineers are at Xiaomi, and to attract PR points. And we have fallen into the trap…

Is Xiaomi filling a Huawei-shaped hole in the smartphone market?

Huawei might be suffering in today’s political climate, but every action gets a positive and negative reaction and could Xiaomi be benefitting from its rival’s misery?

The Chinese challenger brand might have missed on market expectations for revenue, but it is not the worst set of financial results you have ever seen. Looking at the most simplistic measure of a company, it made more money than last year, brought in more profits and sold more products; not too bad.

“Thanks to the Xiaomi relentless efforts, we have managed to achieve solid growth in our businesses, posting a consensus-beating profit and becoming the youngest Fortune Global 500 company in 2019, despite global economic challenges,” said Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun.

“Our performance is testament to the success of our ‘Smartphone + AIoT’ dual-engine strategy and the Xiaomi business model. Looking ahead, we will continue to strengthen our R&D capabilities and investments so as to capture the great opportunities brought by 5G and AIoT markets and strive towards ongoing achievements for the company.”

Financial analysts will be pouring over the spreadsheets to understand why Xiaomi seemingly missed market expectations, but let’s not forget, the smartphone market is in a notable slump right now. Sales are slowing and the 5G euphoria is yet to hit home to compensate. No-one is immune from overarching global trends.

However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the majority of smartphone manufacturers; there are gains to be made from the Huawei misery.

According to the latest smartphone shipment numbers from Canalys, Huawei’s smartphone shipments in Europe have declined year-on-year by 16%, while Samsung and Xiaomi have grown their numbers by 20% and 48% respectively. Other factors will contribute to the increase, though there will be former-Huawei customers who are seeking alternatives brands at the end of their replacement cycle.

Huawei is in a bit of a sticky situation right now. Firstly, its credibility has been called into question, thanks to President Trump’s trade war, while its supply chain is suffering due to the tariffs from the aforementioned trade war. The supply of critical components is under threat, as are security updates from Google’s Android operating system. Both of these concerns will impact consumer buying decisions.

Looking at Huawei’s financial figures, the consumer business unit is still on the rise, revenues were up 23%, though when you take into consideration the analyst estimates, it would seem these gains are from the domestic market. If Xiaomi can avoid collateral damage, it could benefit from Huawei’s alleged downturn in the international markets.

This does seem to be the case. For the first half of 2019, Xiaomi’s revenues increased 20.2% year-on-year to roughly $13.55 billion. The international markets, an area of significant potential for Xiaomi, accounted for 42.1% of the total, compared to a 36.3% proportion in the same period of 2018.

The gains in Europe have been highlighted above, though the Indian market is looking like a very profitable one. IDC estimates suggest Xiaomi is still leading smartphone shipments in India and has done for the last eight consecutive quarters. Estimates from eMarketer state smartphone penetration will grow to 29% of the Indian population in 2019, year-on-year growth of 12.5%. There is still a massive amount of growth potential in this market which is undergoing its own digital revolution.

Another area which has been highlighted for gains by the Xiaomi management team is the increasing diversity of the product portfolio.

Aside from the Mi 9 series and Redmi Note 7 series, the team launched the new K20 flagship during the second quarter, with shipments exceeding one million in the first month. The CC Series has also seemingly gained traction with female audiences, while the Mi MIX 3 5G was one of the first 5G compatible devices to hit the market. Numerous telcos have partnered with Xiaomi for this device, suggested the team is taking the shotgun approach as opposed to signing exclusive partnerships.

What is clear, Xiaomi is a smartphone manufacturer which is heading in the right direction. However, the gains could be increased should the misery continue for Huawei.

Samsung and Xiaomi benefit from Huawei misery

US aggression towards Huawei seems to be paying-off as smartphone shipments in Europe swing away from the Chinese vendor, towards Samsung and Xiaomi.

Although Huawei is still a profitable and growing company, some might fear this growth is too concentrated on the Chinese market thanks to US attempts to damage credibility internationally. According to Canalys estimates, this could be the case, with European smartphone purchases shifting away from the previously surging Huawei brand and towards rivals Samsung and Xiaomi.

“For years, a focus on operating profit has stifled its product strategy,” said Analyst Ben Stanton. “But this year, the shackles are off, and winning back market share is its clear priority. But its success is not solely due to product strategy.

“Samsung has been quick to capitalize on Huawei’s US Entity List problems, working behind the scenes to position itself as a stable alternative in conversations with important retailers and operators.

“A lack of brand loyalty among users of low-end and mid-range Android smartphones, which has blighted Samsung for so long, has become the catalyst for its best performance in years. Europe keeps its reputation as one of the most brand-volatile smartphone markets in the world, rife with danger, but also opportunity.”

As you can see from the table below, the instability of the European market is living up to its reputation.

Brand Q2 2019 Shipments (millions) Q2 2019 market share Annual change
Samsung 18.3 40.6% +20%
Huawei 8.5 18.8% -16%
Apple 6.4 14.1% -17%
Xiaomi 4.3 9.6% +48%
HMD 1.2 2.7% -18%
Others 6.4 7.7% -17%
Total 45.1

Looking at the shift, there is clearly homage being paid to the troubles of the Chinese vendor.

Last month, Huawei unveiled its financial results for the first six months of 2019 with a 23% year-on-year increase. It did appear many of the gains, including in the fast-growing consumer business unit, were in its domestic Chinese market and this research from Canalys backs-up the assumption, at least for smartphones.

Perhaps this also demonstrates the smartphone has become merely a vessel for bigger and better things. With marginal differentiation between flagship devices nowadays, Huawei made gains with products which met consumer expectations but undercut rivals on price. This pricing strategy was paired with an aggressive above-the-line advertising campaign through football sponsorship and traditional advertising to build brand credibility.

However, the White House endorsed propaganda campaign seems to be hitting home. The only difference between now and 2018 is the dents to Huawei’s credibility. It appears European consumers are much more Android-loyal than they are to the smartphone brand.

The beneficiaries of this fall from favour has been Samsung and Xiaomi. Canalys claims three of the top five selling devices in the European market were Samsung, reasserting its dominance, though Xiaomi has continued its impressive rise through the ranks. This might be down to two reasons.

Firstly, Xiaomi’s reputation as a more price-aware brand is clearly catching-on. The Chinese challenger has been making promising gains in some of the developing markets, India is a prime example, though it has managed to position itself as a cheap but reliable alternative for cash-conscious consumers in the European market also. A 48% year-on-year gain is impressive in anyone’s eyes.

Secondly, telcos and distributors might be pushing Xiaomi and alternative Android devices more heavily through advertising campaigns. The more Android fanboys who are turned-off by Huawei, the more prominent Samsung becomes. The more prominent Samsung becomes, the greater its weight during negotiations with channel partners. A market dominant smartphone brand is not good for any of the telcos or the distributors.

The Apple decline is certainly an interesting one also. This is traditionally a quiet quarter for the iLeader, with flagship devices usually launched in September, though a 17% decline is a worrying sign for executives. With the fall in smartphone shipments significantly below the global total decline, either the iCultists are becoming much more price-sensitive, or they are being tempted by Android rivals. Neither is good news.

The global smartphone market is in decline currently, which is perhaps down to two factors more than anything else. Firstly, the current 5G hype might have consumers delaying the purchase of a new device, and secondly, the high-prices of largely uninspiring smartphones might be encouraging longer replacement cycles.

There will of course be numerous other factors to consider, but one thing is clear, some brands are negotiating the baron times much more successfully than others.

Xiaomi is meeting Huawei domestic aggression head on

Smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi plans to increase the investment in channel and retail development in the Chinese market by $725 million, to improve its position and to counter the expected aggression from market leader Huawei.

Bloomberg cited its source at Xiaomi that the Chinese smartphone company has decided to invest CNY 5 billion ($725 million) over the next three years to shore up its channel and retail position in China’s contracting smartphone market. This will come on top of its current budget and will be spent on channel expansion, partner incentive, and sales force financing, according to the report.

The decision is also made in anticipation of Huawei’s aggressive channel and retail movements in China in the near future, the source told Bloomberg. Huawei, the smartphone market leader in China admitted recently that its business will suffer from the US sanctions and the severance of business relations by companies like Google. In the consumer segment, which now accounts for more than half of Huawei’s total revenue, the impact will mainly in the overseas market with the disappearance of Google services from its smartphones posing the biggest impediments to consumers’ purchasing decision. This will drive Huawei to further strengthen its grip on the Chinese market, where it is already supplying one out of ten of the smartphones being sold.

Xiaomi has reaped the benefits after investing heavily in the overseas markets in recent years, having broken into the top five in a number of European markets while also well received in growth markets like India. It has the ambition to become the market leader in its home market too, but so far, the company has been vying for the fourth position with Apple, trailing Huawei, OPPO, and Vivo.

Huawei and Xiaomi also adopt different retail strategies. In addition to smartphones, Huawei also sells its full line of consumer products in the retail outlets including PCs, tablets, and other consumer devices.  Xiaomi, on the other hand, has carried the “ecosystem” concept from online, which used to its exclusively channel, to offline retail. In addition to its own branded products, centred around the smartphones, partner products on its IoT ecosystem are also offered in the retail outlets, in line with its strategies.

Wearables are on the up – IDC

Global shipments of wearable devices are increasingly healthily increasing, according to IDC estimates, up 55% to 49.6 million over the first three months of 2019.

Wearables are a tricky segment for the technology and telco world. So much is promised, a new revolution in digital society, but for years it has failed to deliver on the potential. That said, the last couple of quarters have looked a lot more promising.

“The elimination of headphone jacks and the increased usage of smart assistants both inside and outside the home have been driving factors in the growth of ear-worn wearables,” said Jitesh Ubrani Research Manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers.

“Looking ahead, this will become an increasingly important category as major platform and device makers use ear-worn devices as an on-ramp to entice consumers into an ecosystem of wearable devices that complement the smartphone but also offer the ability to leave the phone behind when necessary.”

This was perhaps the watershed moment for wearables; standalone connectivity. Smart watches, the flagbearer for the segment on the whole, struggled to gain traction due to a lack of standalone connectivity. These certainly weren’t fashion accessories in the early days and tethering the devices to a smartphone largely undermined the selling points.

With standalone connectivity there is now attention on the devices, and the increasing adoption of voice user interface, the devices more appealing for a wider range of applications. That said, the fitness niche is still proving to be a profitable one.

“Shipments of wristwear – including watches and wristbands – grew 31.6% year over year, and continue to dominate the wearables landscape,” said Ramon Llamas, Research Director for Wearables at IDC.

“While the functionalities and capabilities have grown and changed, the one common thread is the relentless focus on health and fitness. This has resonated strongly with users and health insurance companies alike, and new health and fitness insights attract a larger audience.”

Brand Shipments (million) Market share Year-on-year growth
Apple 12.8 25.8% 49.5%
Xiaomi 6.6 13.3% 68.2%
Huawei 5 10% 282.2%
Samsung 4.3 8.7% 151.6%
Fitbit 2.9 5.9% 35.7%
Others 18 36.3% 26%

Interestingly enough, over the last few quarters the top five manufacturers have been consolidating their position in the market, with the ‘others’ category claiming less and less. Like the smartphone space, this is increasingly looking like a market which will be tough for new-comers to crack, with market preferences shifting towards those who have an established brand in the space.

Xiaomi brought an old phone to Barcelona but added 5G to it

Xiaomi used Mobile World Congress 2019 to launch a 5G version of its Mi Mix 3 smartphone. The product will be available in the markets by May 2019.

Under the banner of “We Make It Happen” and billed as its first Mobile World Congress product launch (despite that it took place one day before MWC started), Xiaomi introduced the Mi Mix 3 5G version. The original 4G version of the phablet / super-sized phone was launched in October 2018. The new 5G reincarnation is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 equipped with the new X50 5G modem.

“Xiaomi has spent tremendous efforts developing a 5G smartphone solution and Mi MIX 3 5G represents Xiaomi’s quest to create innovative products for everyone,” said Wang Xiang, Senior Vice President of Xiaomi. “We are also delighted and honoured to be working with our partners to make 5G a reality for even more users all over the world.”

By partners on this particular occasion he definitely included Qualcomm and Orange, both of which endorsed the product launched. Cristiano Amon, President of Qualcomm Incorporated, shared the stage at the event. “We are thrilled to continue our long-standing collaboration with Xiaomi to help bring deliver unprecedented 5G speeds and transformative user experiences to consumers through their latest flagship smartphone, Mi MIX 3 5G,” he said.

Then a live 5G video call on the Mi Mix 3 5G was made on stage with an off-site Orange Spain executive, using Orange network. This may look commonplace nowadays, but it made history for Xiaomi: it was Xiaomi’s first 5G video call outside of China, the company claimed. It did not let go the opportunity without a subtle poke on AT&T either. When pointing at the on-screen 5G symbol, the Xiaomi product development director stressed this is real 5G, “not fake 5G”.

With the exception of 5G, all the other features and specs of Mi Mix 3 5G are the same as its 4G predecessor. The 5G version will be available in May and is priced at 599€.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 launch Feb 2019

Also introduced at the event is Mi 9, its new flagship smartphone launched in China a few days ago. Xiaomi spent a fair amount of time promoting the triple-camera, especially the AI performance to support different picture taking scenarios. Also being highlighted was Mi 9’s full-curved back cover, which it claimed to be inspired by the works of Antoni Gaudí, much to the delight of the local audience.

The Mi 9 is priced at 449€ for the 64GB version, and 499€ for the 128GB version. It is open to pre-order from today in Spain, France, and Italy.

The new product launches are packaged as steps taken to carry out the company’s “dual-core strategy” of Smartphone+AIoT that Xiaomi’s founder launched recently. Xiaomi’s executive threw in quite a few impressive numbers as proofs. For example, the number of monthly active users of MIUI (Xiaomi’s skin on top of Android) has reached 224 million; more than 2,000 products have been brought to the market by over 200 companies in the Xiaomi ecosystem; there are 132 million activated Xiaomi consumer IoT products, which has made it the world’s largest consumer IoT company.

It is also collaborating with IKEA and Philips to popularise smart homes and smart lighting. To make the point, Xiaomi’s executive went into a demo home environment on stage, attempting to switch off the smart air purifier with Google Assistant voice command. He did not quite pull it off. The air purifier refused to switch off, twice. Then he gave up.

Full-year global smartphone market declines for the first time

For five consecutive quarters the global smartphone market has registered year-on-year decline, marking the first time it has shrunk on annual basis since the first iPhone defined the category in 2007.

The size of the contraction is believed to be around 4-5%, according to some research firms. Among the leading smartphone makers, Huawei was the only one that has bucked the trend by increasing its sales volume and vastly improving its market share. By some estimate it is almost neck and neck with Apple.

“Huawei grew 35 percent and shipped a record 205.8 million smartphones globally in full-year 2018,” said Woody Oh, Director at Strategy Analytics. “Huawei is now just a whisker behind Apple, who shipped 206.3 million iPhones last year. Huawei is massively outgrowing the iPhone and we expect Huawei to overtake Apple on a full-year basis worldwide for the first time in 2019.”

In general, the leading Chinese brands, including OPPO, vivo, and Xiaomi (in addition to Huawei) have been aggressively expanding overseas to compensate the weak domestic market. According to the estimates by Counterpoint Research, 46% of the Chinese brands’ total volume was shipped outside of China, up from 33% a year ago. “The collective smartphone shipment growth of emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia and others was not enough to offset the decline in China, which was responsible for almost 1/3 of global smartphone shipments in 2018. With China showing little or no sign of recovery due to various politico-economic factors, Chinese brands are looking to expand overseas,” said Shobhit Srivastava, an analyst from Counterpoint. “To increase market share, Chinese brands have been aggressive in both hardware/software design and marketing.”

Despite being badly hit in the smartphone market in 2018 (and foreseeing continued difficulties in 2019), Samsung was still able to hold on to the overall market leader position. “Samsung shipped 69.3 million smartphones worldwide in Q4 2018, dipping 7 percent annually from 74.4 million units in Q4 2017. Samsung remains the world’s number one smartphone vendor, despite intense competition from Apple, Huawei and others across core markets of India, Europe and the US,” commented Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics.

Calculating Q4 was made further complicated as this was the first quarter that Apple would not publish the iPhone shipment volume (though it continues to publish iPhone revenues). We sampled three research firms’ published numbers on the market size and vendor share, each of them making their judgement call on Apple as well as other firms that do not publish their shipments.

Both Counterpoint Research and Strategy Analytics believed Apple sold 66 million iPhones in the final quarter of 2018, presumably by applying the announced year-on-year 15% decline of iPhone revenues directly on the volume. This is a crude methodology, as it would assume the average selling price (ASP) of the iPhones has remained constant from a year ago. The new models released in 2018 were sold at much higher price points than their predecessors from 2017. To couple this with Apple’s decision to discontinue some older, cheaper models, the iPhone ASP should only go up, which means its volume decline should be bigger than 15%, though by how much is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, Canalys estimated that 71.7 million iPhones were sold in Q4, or a 7% decline from Q4 2017. As a matter of fact, the firm, based on this estimate, declared that Apple overtook Samsung to be the market leader in Q4. This calculation implies Apple must have vastly discounted the iPhones to drive up volume. This is not entirely impossible, but it has not been reported broadly.

Smartphone 2018

China’s smartphone market plunged by 11% in 2018

The smartphone market in China declined by 11% in Q4 2018 and by similar magnitude the whole year, according to numbers from the research firm Strategy Analytics.

Quarterly shipments of smartphones in China dropped from 121 million in Q4 2017 to 108 million in the last quarter of 2018. The annual volume in 2018 came down to 409 million from 460 million the previous year. The market registered a fifth consecutive quarter of contraction, largely due to longer replacement cycle and weak consumer spending, according to the quarterly update from the firm. In 2018, China’s economic growth came to the lowest annual rate since 1990, reported media recently.

No everyone suffered equally though. Huawei beat the competitors as well as the market by shipping 30 million smartphones in the quarter, capturing 28% of the market, giving it a clear market leadership position. “Huawei’s growth soared 23% annually and it is now the clear market leader. A strong product portfolio, famous brand and extensive retail channels were among the main success factors,” commented Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics.

While Samsung, the global leader in smartphone market, has long underperformed in China and is nowhere to be seen on the leader board, Apple’s woes also continued. It is now occupying the number four position on the chart, with 10% market share. “iPhone shipments dropped 22% annually and this was the firm’s worst performance since early 2017. Apple iPhone has now fallen on a year-over-year basis in China for 8 of the past 12 quarters,” said Linda Sui, Director at Strategy Analytics. Similar to what we have seen in India, the majority of the Chinese consumers, faced with the abundant choices offered by the Android products, do not see enough value for money in the iPhone. “Apple is in danger of pricing the iPhone out of China,” Sui added.

The intense competition in China is driving some local brands to look elsewhere for new opportunities. Xiaomi, which just dropped below Apple in the latest quarter in the Chinese market, is eyeing Europe and Latin America for new growth. OnePlus is another Chinese brand trying to gain a foothold in the mature markets with strong specs at appealing price level. However they may find the consumers in these markets less receptive to new brands. For example, a recent research done by Tappable, a UK mobile app developer, suggests only 34% of consumers would consider purchasing from less known brands.

SA China smartphone market 4Q18

Xiaomi unveils new strategy stressing AI, IoT and smartphones

The Chinese device maker Xiaomi has announced its new strategy will be built around two core areas: smartphone and AI+IoT.

At the company’s annual party, Lei Jun, Xiaomi’s founder and CEO, pledged an investment of CNY 10 billion ($1.5 billion) over the next five years, in a strategy it calls AIoT (meaning both “AI+IoT” and “All in IoT”). The objective is to develop this part of the business into a second core of the company’s strategy, to dovetail with its current core business: smartphones.

Xiaomi is no stranger to artificial intelligence. AI has been in the centre of Xiaomi’s marketing messages for its photo technologies on the new smartphones and the smart speakers. Nor has it been a novice in IoT. In fact, Xiaomi claims to be the world’s largest IoT company, “connecting more than 132 million smart devices (excluding mobile phones and laptops), including more than 20 million daily active devices as of September 30 (2018).” This mainly comes in its smart home category including products ranging from smart suitcases to smart scooters and everything in between.

Smartphone, on the other hand, has always been the linchpin in Xiaomi’s ecosystem. After its fast growth in China and the rapid market share gain in emerging markets like India, Xiaomi recently expanded into Europe, including choosing to debut its latest flagship smartphone in London. Additionally, Xiaomi sees in Latin America new growth opportunites. It is also one of the smartphone OEMs to endorse Qualcomm’s 5G chipset. However, as Lei recognised, “Before the proliferation of 5G technology, Xiaomi’s success in smartphone business segment lies in striving to consolidate its leading position in the smartphone markets across the world.”

As a means to continue strengthening its smartphone positions, Xiaomi also announced a dual-brand strategy. Its flagship and other high-end products will continue to come under the “Mi” brand, while the mid-range value-for-money products will carry the “Redmi” brand. Here Xiaomi may have taken a page from Huawei’s brand strategy, which has used “Honor” to address the mid-range segment while its flagship products have been branded “Huawei” and come in Mate or Pro series.