China's mini Apple takes slice of smartphone pie

Technology

China's Xiaomi Technology is a fairy tale for nerdy entrepreneurs.

Less than three years after its founding, the smartphone maker is valued at $4 billion and evokes Apple -like adoration from its fans, some of whom are desperate enough to skip work for a shot at buying the latest product the day it goes on sale.

Founder Lei Jun dresses like the late Steve Jobs, in jeans and a black top. He has created a fervent fan base for Xiaomi's moderately priced high-end smartphones by mimicking Apple Inc's marketing tactic of attaching an aura of exclusivity around its products.

Before Xiaomi, the 42-year-old Lei was a key investor in China's early Internet scene, co-founding startups including Joyo.cn, which was eventually sold to Amazon.com Inc, and the recently listed YY Inc.

Born in Xiantao, a small city in China's central Hubei province better known for breeding Olympic gymnasts than billionaire technocrats, Lei brushes off comparisons to Jobs but concedes that the Apple visionary was an inspiration. "China's media say I am China's Steve Jobs," Lei told Reuters in an interview.

"I will take this as a compliment but such kind of comparison brings us huge pressure," said Lei, who grew up assembling radios as a hobby. "Xiaomi and Apple are two totally different companies. Xiaomi's based on the Internet. We are not doing the same thing as Apple ."

Hot Sales and fans

Xiaomi has already sold 300,000 of its latest phone model, launched in October. The Xiaomi phone 2 has specifications similar to those of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S3 and Apple 's iPhone5 but a top-of-the-line model sells for about $370, half the price of an iPhone5.

Unlike the big domestic smartphone players, such as Lenovo Group, ZTE Corp and Huawei Technologies , which work with telecom carriers to sell a large volume of smartphones, Xiaomi sells most of its phones online and in small batches.

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