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Google Returns to China, As a Hardware Company — Financial Times

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The end is in sight for Google’s seven wilderness years in China. With none of the theatrics that accompanied its voluntary withdrawal from the country due to web-search censorship in January 2010, Google is now firmly on a path not only to return to China but also to potentially seize a spot alongside Apple as one of the most profitable tech companies there.

This is a likely outcome of Google’s announcement last week that it is entering with full force the global consumer hardware industry. Google Pixel mobile phones, Google Home artificial intelligence-enabled speakers, Google Daydream View virtual reality headsets, these will be the engines of Google’s revival in China. Based on what Google has so far revealed – including pricing – these products may find a large market among Chinese consumers.

The company has made no specific mention of plans to re-enter China. China’s government will not likely strew the ground with rose petals to welcome Google back.

Instead, Google can rely on China’s enormous grey market for electronics hardware to bring its products into China’s on-and-offline retail network. Hong Kong is usually the main transshipment point, not only because prices are lower than in the PRC, but the quality of hardware sold there is considered to be higher.

There is a precedent here. Apple took six years after the iPhone’s launch to ramp up its official sales channels in China by doing a deal with the main carrier, China Mobile. By that point, an estimated 30m to 50m grey market iPhones were already in use in China.

Mobile phones running Google’s Android system already dominate the Chinese market, with about 300m sold this year. Most are sold unlocked without carrier subsidy. None can freely access Google search, storage or maps. The Google Pixel will likely have similar limitations.

But Pixel will have huge advantages no other Android phone can match of closely integrating the operating system and device hardware to optimise the performance of everything else on the phone.

All of China’s many Android brands will be impacted, but none more so than the current market leader, Huawei. It now dominates the high-end Android market in China, even more so with Samsung’s recent woes. The Pixel will be priced to compete directly with Huawei’s flagship models.

It is not only in its home market of China that Huawei may get battered. It has also set great store on becoming the world’s leading Android phone brand in Europe. That will certainly be far harder to achieve now.

As it happens, Google’s announcement came at a time when just about everyone at Huawei, along with everyone else in China, was enjoying a week-long national holiday. They return to their desks this week to find the tech world disrupted. No one quite predicted Google would amp up its hardware strategy to this level.

Google had toyed around before, selling small volumes of its outsourced Nexus-branded mobile phone to showcase more of Android’s features. Huawei was one of the companies making Nexus phones. Google also bought in 2011 Motorola’s mobile phone business and unloaded it two-and-a-half years later to China’s Lenovo, a deal that has not worked out at all well for the Chinese company.

But, this time Google says it is not dabbling. It defines its future strategy as becoming, like Apple, a fully vertically-integrated hardware and software business, but one with the world’s most powerful system of proprietary voice and text-enabled artificial intelligence.

Google introduced three hardware products last week. More are certain to follow, including perhaps a mid-priced phone that will take aim squarely at China’s Xiaomi (among others), already reeling from falling sales and an inability to crack the more lucrative higher-end Android market.

Google’s advantages run so deep they can seem unfair. Not only does it own and develop the Android software its competitors except Apple rely on, it also already has one of the world’s best and most recognizable brands. Also worth noting, Google now has about $70bn in cash, mainly sitting outside the US, looking for new markets to conquer.

As for the other new Google hardware products – the home speaker and virtual reality (VR) headset – the market seems ripe for the taking. Despite billions of government dollars invested into Chinese companies working on machine-learning, artificial intelligence and VR, none has come to market in any significant way.

Even if they now do, none can match Google’s enormous breadth, capability and experience in human-machine dialogue.

Though a success in the US, Amazon’s Echo home speaker, which is capable of interacting with the human voice, is a non-entity in China. It does not understand spoken Chinese. Google, on the other hand, is quite adept at Chinese. While Google Maps, Gmail, Drive are all blocked in China, Google Translate is not.

Indeed, the Chinese government quietly stopped blocking it about a year ago. It’s the only one of Google’s major online offerings that can be readily accessed in China. The reason: Google Translate has become an essential tool for Chinese companies active internationally, as well as for many of the 150m middle class Chinese now vacationing abroad each year.

If Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, is correct, the world including China is moving from a “mobile-first to an AI-first world”. Google is already miles farther down this path than any Chinese company. It need not reestablish its search engine business in China to be a major force there.

As for China’s government, however it chooses to react to Google hardware products sweeping into China, its own aspirations to nurture globally-competitive indigenous tech companies probably just got a lot harder to achieve.

In the seven years since Google departed, China became in many areas even more of a tech Galapagos. Poised now to reenter China by the back door, Google should like the way the competitive landscape looks there.

If Google takes just 1 per cent of the China Android market – and my prediction is it will do markedly better – it will have $2bn of annual revenues in China, a business larger, more valuable and unassailable than when it pulled out.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank

 

As published in the Financial Times

China’s Xiaomi Under Pressure to Prove Value to Investors — Wall Street Journal

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Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015.
Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING—In January 2015, Xiaomi Corp. founder Lei Jun announced to his staff in an open letter that the Chinese smartphone maker was the world’s most valuable technology startup.

“We will journey into the constellations, to places where others haven’t dreamed of,” he wrote.

Living up to those high expectations has been a challenge. Xiaomi missed its 2015 sales target of 80 million smartphones, according to people familiar with the company, and investors are beginning to question its $46 billion valuation, which was based on yet unrealized plans to generate substantial revenue from Internet services.

China’s economic slowdown, coupled with turbulence in the stock market, is prompting investors to take a second look at China’s high startup valuations. Startups such as Xiaomi, which raised vast sums on China’s mobile Internet boom, are now facing growing pressure to live up to expectations.

“With China’s economy slowing, many startups will need to be more cautious in their expansion strategies,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst for market research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi shot to the top of China’s smartphone market in 2014 with the novel idea of selling hardware by gathering a large user base, a business model usually favored by Internet companies, not those selling a physical product. Sales that year tripled to 61 million smartphones, compared with a year earlier. Mr. Lei cultivated fan clubs and used “flash sales” to sell smartphones with iPhone-rivaling hardware at a fraction of the price. He swallowed thin margins, betting he could later sell services to users.

Investors swooned. In December 2014, Xiaomi raised a $1.1 billion round that valued it at $46 billion, topping even ride-sharing startup Uber Technologies Inc. at the time, although Uber has since regained the lead.

But Xiaomi’s smartphones, which once sold out in minutes in limited batches via online flash sales, are now easily available—a shift that analysts say signals slowing demand.

A slowdown in China’s smartphone market has laid bare Xiaomi’s weaknesses.

Xiaomi has lost market share against established competitors with more financial and technological firepower, such as Huawei Technologies Co., which launched a high-end smartphone line and overtook Xiaomi as China’s top handset maker in the third quarter 2015, according to research firm Canalys.

Huawei, which sold more than 100 million mobile devices last year, is beefing up its marketing in overseas markets in a bid to challenge Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. , the world’s two biggest smartphone makers. Huawei’s engineering strength and brand image built up over decades make it difficult for Xiaomi to compete in China, analysts say.

“The competition in China’s smartphone market has intensified tremendously this year,” said a Xiaomi spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the company’s valuation or say whether it met its 2015 sales target. She said Xiaomi sales were “within expectations” and its flash sales are primarily for new phones when production ramps up.

The lack of its own high-end chip technology also proved to be a competitive disadvantage for Xiaomi in 2015. When early versions of the Qualcomm Inc. ’s Snapdragon 810 processor were reported to overheat, it dampened sales of Xiaomi’s most expensive handset yet, the 2,299 yuan (US$349) Mi Note, analysts said. Xiaomi couldn’t fall back on an in-house developed chip to get around the problem, as Huawei and Samsung did.

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment on the processor. Analysts say the problems have since been fixed.

Overseas growth has also been slow for Xiaomi, with the percentage of its smartphones sold overseas in the first nine months of 2015 rising to 8%, compared with 7% in the 2014 calendar year, according to Canalys. It faced tough competition overseas, and found consumers unaccustomed to online phone-buying, said Ms. Peng, the analyst from Canalys.

Xiaomi’s thin patent portfolio also became a hurdle as it sought to expand in markets such as India. A lack of patents led to a court ruling that crimped its access to the crucial India market. In December 2014, India’s Delhi High Court ordered Xiaomi to stop selling all smartphones not running on Qualcomm chips due to a patent lawsuit filed by Sweden’s Ericsson. A year later, the injunction remains, which means Xiaomi can’t sell its popular models running chips made by Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek Inc.

Xiaomi said it sold 3 million smartphones in India from July 2014 through August 2015, and 1 million smartphones there in the third quarter. Its average quarter-over-quarter growth is 45%, it said.

The lack of a diversified customer base is another challenge for Xiaomi. It remains “locked in a Chinese demographic ghetto of mainly males 18 to 30,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China-focused boutique investment bank China First Capital. Xiaomi’s focus on low prices has hit its brand image, he said.

Xiaomi’s average smartphone price fell to $122 in the third quarter from $160 a year earlier, despite China’s smartphone sector moving upmarket, according to IDC. The average price of a smartphone in China rose to $240 from $202. Huawei’s rose to $209 from $201. Xiaomi’s best-selling model last year was its cheapest, the $76 Redmi 2A, IDC analyst James Yan said.

Xiaomi’s supporters say the outlook is still bright, as it shifts to building an ecosystem of smart home products. The company has invested in 56 startups so far, ranging from iconic scooter maker Segway to a manufacturer of air purifiers, essential in China’s smog-choked cities.

“Xiaomi’s promise lies in its ecosystem,” said Steven Hu, former partner in Xiaomi investor Qiming Venture Partners.

But others are skeptical.

“Mobile services, e-commerce, branded consumer products—these still are largely just a figment rather than a huge and growing source of profits that could validate last year’s sky-high valuation,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xiaomi-under-pressure-to-prove-value-to-investors-1452454204

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Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools — Bloomberg

Bloomberg

Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools

By Tim Culpan

November 25, 2015 — 7:00 PM HKT

Things were going so well for Xiaomi Corp. Customers were lining up, investors were swooning and the Beijing-based startup closed funding at a $45 billion valuation. That was last year.

Now the high-flying smartphone maker is stumbling. Founder Lei Jun’s latest business, one of China’s most exciting startup stories of the past few years, is likely to miss its own goal of selling 80 million smartphones this year, according to two people with knowledge of its production plans. Suppliers also cut their internal targets for Xiaomi in anticipation of the shortfall, they said.
Xiaomi’s falter shows the startup’s challenge in trying to maintain momentum after a meteoric ascent past Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. in China. Investors bought into the company’s story of youthful disruption and online sales, yet the subsequent lowering of China’s growth target and the copying of its sales strategy by rivals have neutralized Xiaomi’s first-mover advantage, putting its high price tag in doubt.

“All those expectations of growth aren’t being realized, which now makes that $45 billion valuation unfeasible,” said Alberto Moel, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein in Hong Kong. “The argument was that their business is kind of like Apple and they’re growing very fast, but they’re no longer growing so fast and they’re not as good as Apple.”
Shipments Drop

Xiaomi doesn’t provide exact shipment targets to its suppliers, instead working on a real-time basis with orders fulfilled as they come in on Xiaomi’s website. Yet the companies tasked with preparing the components and capacity to meet Xiaomi’s needs have started scaling back production and diverting resources elsewhere, said the people, who have knowledge of the supply chain and asked not to be identified because the details are private.

Domestic shipments of Xiaomi smartphones, including its premium Mi 4 and more economical Redmi series, dropped 8 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, its first-ever decline, according to researcher Canalys. IHS, another research firm, estimates that Xiaomi shipments dropped 3.9 percent, barely maintaining the lead over Huawei Technologies Co.

That’s a big change from the bold growth projections used to justify Xiaomi’s tag as one of the world’s most-valuable technology startups. In March of last year, Lei predicted selling 100 million smartphones in 2015. Through the first nine months of this year, Xiaomi shipped about 53 million smartphones.

With its optimistic forecast, Xiaomi secured $1.1 billion in December from investors including GIC Pte., All-Stars Investment Ltd. and DST. Xiaomi drew comparisons to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese e-commerce company that months earlier held the largest initial public offering ever.

‘Hype, Hope’

At 3.75 times last year’s $12 billion in revenue, Xiaomi’s fundraising gave it a price-to-sales ratio exceeding that of Apple, which currently trades at 2.9.

That pricing of Xiaomi does not seem to have been based on any known or accepted valuation methodology, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital. “Hype and hope seem to have been the two key drivers,” he said.

In March, after that round of funding and after China set its lowest growth target in 15 years, Lei trimmed his earlier prediction to “80 million to 100 million” units for the year.

Its first year-on-year decline came during a quarter when Xiaomi released its Redmi Note 2, a lower-priced handset that sold for an average of 801 yuan ($125) each. On Tuesday it unveiled a metallic version of that phone with a fingerprint sensor, as well as a new tablet computer and air purifier.

‘Substantial’ Market

Growth might be reignited in the fourth quarter by China’s Nov. 11 Singles’ Day shopping promotions and the latest version of the Redmi Note. The company, which traditionally unveils an update to its marquee Mi smartphones during the third quarter, hasn’t yet announced a Mi 5 after last year’s Mi 4.

“I am not concerned about the valuation because, over time, their market is substantial,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at Xiaomi investor GGV Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. “Over the next 12 months, it’ll become increasingly obvious what Xiaomi is doing in the smart home and services space.”

Hugo Barra, a Xiaomi vice president, declined to comment on shipment targets or valuations and referred questions to Chief Financial Officer Shou Zi Chew, who didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

Xiaomi eschews the label of smartphone maker, claiming instead to be an “Internet company” furnishing a range of devices and online services. Xiaomi and its affiliates sell TVs, air filters, battery packs, action cameras, fitness trackers and even a self-balancing scooter. Its non-hardware offerings include games, payments, mobile-phone services and cloud storage.

No Loyalty

It’s those other products, such as the Mi Air Purifier 2 released this week, which Tung sees helping Xiaomi expand its sales and keeping consumers coming back to an ecosystem that connects home devices to the Internet and through mobile apps.

The ancillary businesses are still relatively small, with the company expecting the services units to account for just $1 billion of its $16 billion in projected revenue this year, Barra said in a July interview. Sales of smartphones outside China accounted for just 7 percent of its total in the third quarter, according to Strategy Analytics.

Xiaomi has struggled partly because competitors Huawei, Lenovo Group Ltd. and Gionee — among others — quickly copied its business model with ultra-thin devices, glossy websites and lower prices, allowing consumers to easily switch to the hippest new phone.

“Xiaomi was very popular because it was the first brand that marketed its phones as being limited edition,” said Chen Si, a 25-year-old real estate worker in Beijing who bought the Mi 3 after its 2013 release, citing its cool design. “I wouldn’t say I am loyal to Xiaomi, I just think that a phone should be affordable and easy to use. If not, then I’ll just change.”

A year later, she switched to the iPhone 6.

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-25/xiaomi-s-45-billion-valuation-seen-unfeasible-as-growth-cools

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