Lei Jun, chairman and chief executive officer of Xiaomi Corp,. speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg)

China's Xiaomi Aims Its Priciest Phone at Huawei and Apple

(Bloomberg) -- Xiaomi Corp. really wants to shed its down-market image. China’s No. 2 smartphone maker is counting on its most expensive device yet to face off against Huawei Technologies Co. and Apple Inc. at home while carving out a bigger footprint in Europe.

The Chinese smartphone maker on Thursday unveiled the MIX 3, the fourth generation of a series introduced in 2016. Xiaomi’s latest effort to acquire a premium gloss features a bezel-less 6.4-inch screen, Qualcomm Inc. processors and slick ceramic body. It now sports front-facing cameras on a sliding structure nestled behind the screen, doing away with the notch popularized by the iPhone.

China's Xiaomi Aims Its Priciest Phone at Huawei and Apple

The device will go on sale from November starting at 3,299 yuan ($475) and going all the way up to 4,999 yuan for a “Forbidden City” special edition. It marks Chairman Lei Jun’s effort to make greater headway into a more profitable premium market dominated by Apple, Samsung Electronics Co. and -- to an increasing extent -- Chinese rival Huawei. That’s where customers have deeper pockets to pay for services such as music and games that Xiaomi deems the future of its business.

China's Xiaomi Aims Its Priciest Phone at Huawei and Apple

Beijing-based Xiaomi is trying to steal market share from Huawei, the leader in China -- especially in the 3,000 yuan-plus market thanks to its P and Mate series gadgets. It also wants to build a bigger presence in Europe, a stepping stone to the U.S. Both are vital to sustaining its pace of revenue growth. Xiaomi disclosed Thursday that phone shipments for the year had surpassed 100 million units -- overtaking 2017’s total -- but much of that would have come from cheaper models in India and elsewhere.

“We’ve been focusing on our internal capabilities this year, in preparation for future competition,” Lei told reporters and industry executives gathered within the Forbidden City, the centuries-old former imperial palace at the heart of Beijing. “The biggest brands are heavily invested in cameras and AI. It’s those areas that will decide the top-tier vendors and smaller players.”

The MIX 3 will sport the usual AI-powered bells and whistles, such as auto-background blur for selfies. Xiaomi’s marquee device also sports an AMOLED screen, Snapdragon 845 chipset and 24-megapixel front-facing dual camera. But it may have a ways to go to wrest interest from Apple’s and Huawei’s latest models -- Lei on Thursday mostly pitted the MIX 3 against the older iPhone X and Huawei’s P20.

Regardless, Xiaomi needs the MIX 3 to be a hit. The smartphone vendor wrapped up a $5.4 billion initial public offering in July, only to find itself under intense scrutiny from investors over valuations comparable to higher-growth internet giants such as Facebook Inc. Pressured further by the uncertainty surrounding U.S.-Chinese tensions, Xiaomi has lost roughly $13 billion or about a quarter of its market value since its debut.

“It’s something worth looking out for even if the MIX range is not going to bring in meaningful revenue for a long time,” said Nicole Peng, senior research director of Canalys. “It is to showcase how much R&D capability Xiaomi has got in its pocket.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Gao Yuan in Beijing at ygao199@bloomberg.net

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board