A sneak peek at Xiaomi’s Android-based Mi TV

Chinese smart phone maker Xiaomi may be getting ready to sell some of its wares in the U.S., but its smart TV devices likely won’t be part of that U.S. line-up any time soon: Xiaomi VP of International Hugo Barra told me on the sidelines of a press event in San Francisco Thursday that Xiaomi’s TV set is heavily customized for the Chinese market, thanks in part to content licensing agreements, and the company isn’t looking to strike similar deals in the U.S.. The same goes for Xiaomi’s Mi Box mini, a streaming device that the company introduced last month.

However, never say never: Xiaomi revealed last year that it plans to invest $1 billion in online video content, which could eventually pave the way to target Chinese expats, or even wider audiences, outside of China as well. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a closer look at Xiaomi’s Mi TV, the company’s 47-inch smart TV, which was on display at the press event as well.

Xiaomi Mi TV

Mi TV is based on Android, but it doesn’t look at all like the Android TVs Google is currently introducing with manufacturers like Sony and Sharp. Instead, Xiaomi has custom-built its own user interface, which boasts access to TV, movie and game content as well as an app store and access to user-generated local and cloud content.

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At the center of the experience is definitely Xiaomi’s movie and TV content, which the company is licensing from China’s ICN TV. “Essentially, you get a Netflix-style subscription for free,” Barra told me.

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Barra stressed that all of the content available through Mi TV is licensed, and said that it’s possible to offer free content in part because licensing costs in China are a lot lower.

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Mi TV also offers access to Android games, which can be played with an external game pad.

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Mi TV users can also access Xiaomi’s Mi Cloud service, which offers personal media backup and synching across devices. That way, they are able to view photos and videos taken on Xiaomi smartphones on their TVs.

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Xiaomi President Bin Lin said Thursday that Mi Cloud already stores 30 billion photos. Over time, the company wants to extend the cloud functionality to connect all kinds of devices through the company’s IoT platform.

Xiaomi is looking to bring everything but its phones to the U.S.

Chinese smart phone maker Xiaomi isn’t ready just yet to sell its phones in the U.S., but the company wants to start selling some of its other products to Americans soon. Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra, vice president of international for the copmany, announced at a press event in San Francisco Thursday that it plans to launch its e-commerce website in the U.S. and other international markets soon to start selling accessories like its fitness band, power banks and other accessories.

Xiaomi's website, as it will be available to U.S. users soon.

Xiaomi’s website, as it will be available to U.S. users soon.

“We intend to launch here in the us in a few months,” Barra said. “It will not include any phones or tablets,” he said, adding that localization of its MIUI Android platform is “incredibly difficult.” Xiaomi introduced a set of headsets and a TV streaming box at a press event in China last month. However, Barra told me that the TV devices likely won’t be available in the U.S. because of content rights and other regionalization issues.

Xiaomi is currently selling its phones in eight Asian territories, and is about to start selling phones in Brazil soon. Company executives said Thursday that they sold 61.1 million phones in 2014, which represented a 227 percent growth over 2013. It generated revenue of 74.3 billion RMB (close to $12 billion), which represented a 135 percent growth over 2013. Xiaomi’s MIUI flavor of Android is being used by over 100 million people worldwide.

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Xiaomi president Lin Bin said Thursday that a lot of the company’s success in its Asian markets has to do with its direct interaction with its users, which include an active online forum as well as direct face-to-face interaction. In 2014, Xiaomi had 665 fan gatherings in China alone, he said.

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Barra added that this kind of interaction also extends to the development of MIUI itself. Xiaomi has been shipping new updates to its MIUI Android system every week for 224 weeks straight, and Barra said that many of the system’s new features have been suggested by fans. Some of the unique features highlighted by Barra include an easier way to edit the phone’s home screen, a white list for Android app notifications and a beautification feature that automatically makes your selfie look better.

But the coolest feature may actually be one that deals with one of the most annoying parts of calling big companies. Xiaomi has mapped out the phone trees of the automatic voice systems of many Chinese companies, and presents the options to do common tasks right within the dialer. Want to speak with a representative? Then just press a button — and your Xiaomi phone will automatically dial the right sequence of numbers to get you there.

This post was updated throughout with additional information at 1:06pm.

Samsung is making less money from phones, but chip sales are up

Samsung Electronics announced a fourth quarter earnings decline on Thursday, its first holiday season drop in three years.

The earnings report wasn’t as gloomy as the past few quarters have been: Samsung made an operating profit of 5.29 trillion won ($4.87 billion) on 52.73 trillion won ($48.6 billion) in revenue. Nearly $5 billion in profits is still a big number, but it’s down from last years 8.31 trillion won in operating profit. Revenue was down from 59.28 trillion won.

Samsung’s struggles in its cash-cow handset division (IT & mobile communications) are well documented: It’s getting beat by Apple on high-end handsets (even in South Korea) and its margins are getting pressured on the low-end from companies such as Xiaomi and Lenovo. In this past quarter, Samsung reorganized much of its mobile executive ranks, firing several VP-level employees, including head of mobile marketing D.J. Lee, while keeping mobile unit head J.K. Shin in charge. Profit from Samsung’s handset division dropped to 1.96 trillion won from 5.47 trillion won in the year-ago period.

Some are wondering whether Apple may have sold more total handsets than Samsung in the most recent quarter. Samsung says its high-end products, specifically the Galaxy Note 4, are seeing “increased sales.”

Photo by Kif Leswing/Gigaom One bright spot in the Samsung Electronics earnings report was for its semiconductor division, which posted a profit of 2.7 trillion won ($2.4 billion). Samsung makes processors as well as memory chips.

Samsung attributed its semiconductor division performance to increased demand for DRAM. But part of it could also be due to Samsung winning contracts for semiconductor fabrication for future Apple iPhones, or it could be because Samsung will likely be using its chips in its own phones instead of ones made by Qualcomm, as has been seemingly confirmed by Qualcomm itself. Samsung also plans to spend more money to boost its chip output, the company said in a statement.

Samsung has already made several major shifts in its handset and overall strategy that haven’t completely shown up in this most recent earnings report.

It has consolidated many of its mid-range devices into a new A Series sporting Samsung’s new aluminum construction, and it appears to be going forward with unique curved displays like those found on the Galaxy Note Edge in future devices. Samsung is also a major player in virtual reality, having released the Gear VR headset in the past few months. It released a phone running its own Tizen operating system, which will start showing up in TVs and other connected durable goods made by Samsung’s consumer-electronics division. In the next year, those decisions will start to have a bigger impact on Samsung’s bottom line.

 

 

Xiaomi bolsters its high-end lineup with two new flagship phones

Xiaomi, a Chinese company and the third largest smartphone maker in the world, held one of its big events in Beijing on Thursday. Among the now-standard Xiaomi launch fanfare, the company introduced two new smartphones, a pair of premium headphones, and a TV streaming stick that looks similar to a smartphone charger.

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The two smartphones Xiaomi launched on Thursday, the Mi Note and the Mi Note Pro, use Xiaomi’s high-end Mi moniker, and shouldn’t be confused with its lower-end Redmi Note, or Samsung’s more expensive Galaxy Note, which it resembles. The Mi Note is a dual-SIM smartphone, with a 5.7-inch 1080p display, powered by a Snapdragon 801 chip and 3GB of RAM. It comes in both 16GB and 64GB versions starting at RMB 2299 ($370). It’s running on Xiaomi’s tweaked version of Android and the MIUI ineterface.

[company]Xiaomi[/company] also launched the Mi Note Pro, a souped-up version which will be Xiaomi’s most expensive smartphone.  It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 — which we haven’t seen on many flagship devices so far — and it’s got a 5.7-inch, 2560×1440 display, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage space. It’s launching later this month for RMB 3,299 ($530).

Both Mi Notes have a Sony 13-megapixel camera module with optical image stabilization as their rear shooter, and a 4MP front camera with larger 2-micron pixels.

Xiaomi doesn’t just make smartphones, though, and it also introduced two new intriguing electronic products at its event. Taking a page from Apple and Samsung, which both have premium headphone lines, Xiaomi is selling its own cans, and going even farther, Xiaomi is advertising they work with the high-definition playback supported on the new Mi devices.

Xiaomi Mi Headphones

The Mi Headphones are semi-open (so sound will leak) headphones for the affordable price of RMB 499, or $80 — which is a lot less than a pair of Beats, but still expensive for many of Xiaomi’s customers in Asia.

Xiaomi also introduced another TV streaming box, and this one looks a lot like an iPhone wall charger. The Mi Box Mini is packing a quad-core CPU based on Cortex A7 ARM cores, 4GB of internal storage, and HDMI 1.4. The box isn’t running Android TV, but it is running Android 4.4. KitKat. If you can get the content you want on it, it seems like a good deal for RMB 199 ($30).

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Xiaomi is now selling its wares in China, India, Indonesia, and soon Brazil, but it’s unlikely to set up shop in the United States in the near future.

In the west, Xiaomi is often compared to Apple (because of its similar hardware designs) or Amazon (because of its approach to profit margins.) But the Chinese giant, recently valued at $45 billion, seems to be marching to its own beat, expanding its product lineup to include all kinds of home goods, including TVs, air purifiers, and routers. But the smartphone is where Xiaomi got its start, and with the new Mi Notes, it hasn’t forgotten its core fanbase: Chinese consumers who want dynamite smartphone hardware at a good price.

 

After raising $1.1B, Xiaomi is now worth $45B

Xiaomi has completed a $1.1 billion funding round that values the Chinese smartphone startup at $45 billion, the company announced on Monday. Xiaomi’s valuation and raise matches reports from earlier this year, when Xiaomi said it plans to spend the funds on internet TV and international growth.

It’s a large valuation for a young company. Xiaomi was founded in 2010, and has made its name selling Android smartphones directly to consumers in China (and now India) online. [company]Xiaomi[/company] sells a full line of electronics in China, including televisions, tablets, smart home products, and fitness bands.

Xiaomi also teased that it plans to “unveil its next flagship device” in January 2015.

The $45 billion valuation is predicated on Xiaomi’s impressive growth — the company made 26.6 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) in revenue in 2013, its third year as a company, and is projected to more than double its revenue in 2014. By some calculations, despite only selling devices in a few countries, Xiaomi is the world’s third largest smartphone maker measured by number of devices shipped.

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Xiaomi Mi4

 

Xiaomi has thin profit margins despite its big revenue numbers. A regulatory filing earlier this month revealed that Xiaomi recorded 345.7 million yuan ($56 million) in net profit in 2013.

Samsung will make fewer phone models next year

Samsung makes a lot of different phones, almost all of them functionally identical Android devices with slight differences. Now it’s planning to streamline the number of smartphones it makes by at least a quarter.