Jai Mani, product lead, Xiaomi, poses for WION at Phoenix Marketcity Mall in Bengaluru. Photograph: (WION)
It is not everyday that you get to sit with a senior executive of a tech giant, who doesn’t mince his words and, instead, sounds pretty vocal in his responses - even when prodded. Meet Jai Mani, product lead, Xiaomi India. We threw at Jai questions ranging from why Redmi phones slow down eventually to what kinds of setbacks has Hugo Barra’s exit led to for the company that has ambitious plans globally, and he took on all pretty gracefully - without attempting to evade any. Here is a read for you:
WION: Finally, India has got Mi Home stores - something that people here had been eyeing for a long time. So, what finally drove the company to come up with retail stores in India and what are the expansion plans?
Jai: Mi Home has a few goals. There are a number of people who want to see the product before they buy it. Recently, I have been going to smaller towns to see what the smartphone market is like there. Actually, I have been surprised about how many people know about Xiaomi even if they don't use the internet really. But still, some people do like seeing the phone, and especially, for ecosystem products such as the Mi Purifier 2. People like to see it, people want to touch it. So I think that's one component. Also, offline is still the biggest chain for people to buy phones here in India.
WION: Coming to the product side of the business, Xiaomi is one of the few companies making their own chipsets. We believe, the company eventually would intend to drop the reliance on outside suppliers. The Surge S1 for mid-range phones is out there already. When can we see the company coming up with chipsets for premium phones? And how you are going to set up your own chipset business in China?
Jai: We are investing in a lot of core technology areas, and that's just not hardware, but across the board. We have made a lot of investment in artificial intelligence and, I think, hardware is a huge focus. So, now we have the processor company. We have also been investing in things like displays and it's not necessarily about reducing reliance on other companies. It's more about what innovation can we drive. What new things can we bring about. I think for our first effort, the Surge S1 is really good. So, certainly, we will see what kind of stuff we can push through it - if we can figure out ways to improve battery life and keep the performance great. You know in India, things like thermal performance are really important. I think, it's more about innovation. We are trying to see what we can do to push the boundaries.
WION: What kind of innovation can we expect the company to bring to the chipset market?
Jai: It's very early. Initially, we are just trying to get off the ground so that we can build a business. So I think, it's kind of in the early stages.
WION: Do you have any plans to come up with the next chipset sometime soon?
Jai: I know they are working on new chipsets, but nothing to really talk about.
WION: The next question is purely from the consumer point of view. I have been hearing it from a lot of people that no wonder the company is making great, value-for-money phones, but their Redmi phones start to stutter after a point. And it has become a pretty common feedback. How would you comment on this?
Jai: I have heard this kind of thing. People typically say this about Android devices. I think, for us, we put a lot of focus on this because we are a software company. We are not a hardware company unlike other manufacturers. Most manufacturers make money when they sell you the phone. So, all they really care about is the phone and the point of sale. For us, as a software company, we care about what happens after you buy the phone.
As you know, our margins on hardware are much lower than other manufacturers. And so, you will see us update a device once a month or once every two months. And we have very high benchmarks for those updates. They don't only add new features, but we test them very vigorously. We make sure that there are no changes in battery life, no changes in performance - ideally, we make all these things better.
So, I have heard this statement a lot in general, but I think, for us, more so than any manufacturer - because we update our phones more than anybody. It is like our imperative. It's the way our business model is manufactured that we need to make the phones better. So, I think our incentives are more aligned to making the phones better.
A lot of times, by the way, it is because people have installed 120 apps and some of those apps do bad stuff. But yes, I have heard this before and you know, personally, I think that we are more focused on it than anybody.
WION: Given that you have heard that before, have you been able to identify a key problem that is actually creating a bad behaviour - say in terms of performance?
Jai: In terms of MIUI, every update is as good or better as the previous update. So, if we find a bug, we fix it. And we fix within a month. And so, we take feedback from the fans. We make sure the software gets better all the time. And I think, the stuff that I see on people's phones, most of the time, it's the third party apps. Like some app that is doing something to slow the phone down, takes up a lot of RAM and uses a lot of memory.
And, another really common thing is SD cards. A lot of people use really slow, bad SD cards. They put more stuff on the SD card. The system slows down or the SD card performance degrades over the time. So, I think, SD card is another big reason. It's one of the reasons why we try to increase the memory on our phones.
From our perspective, the MIUI updates make the phone better. And we have been doing it for a long time. We support phones longer than anybody. For that matter, Google's official support for their devices is two years.
WION: No doubt, Xiaomi has a good portfolio in the Indian market, but still a lot of products don't make to the country, say a thing as basic as a rice cooker. So, why didn’t the company introduce it in India?
Jai: Our rice cooker is designed for a very different market. Our rice cooker is priced at $150 and the top model is somewhere around $200. So, most people in India wouldn't pay $200 for a rice cooker.
WION: I understand that some of the products are designed for specific markets, but some products could have made to India. So, what was actually holding the company back?
Jai: So, one of the things that actually makes my job so fun is that there are very few companies where people actually know everything that has not been launched in India. Think about any other company, you won't know all the products. Whereas for us, people know everything. And that's kind of awesome. So, how we choose what thing should get launched. I think there is a kind of the way I look at it.
There is a sort of two lists. There is a list of things we want to launch and that is based on the feedback we get from fans. We take polls, we talk to them all. Probably on top of the list, it would be TVs, may be laptops on the second spot, and third could be routers and down and down and down.
And then there is a list of things that we can and should launch. So like TVs, for example, you have to get a lot of stuff right. We have to get the software right. We have to get the content right. We have to get the service right. Because all those things are very different from phones. So, that's one of the reasons why we have taken a long time. Because we want to ensure that when we do it, if we do it, we do a good job.
I think, one of the other concerns is to do with things like stock inventory. Every additional product you launch, you need to make sure the inventory is good enough. So, right now, we want to focus on making sure that the experience of our existing products is good and then figure out how we can make our expansion into new businesses successful.
So last year, we just did air-purifier. This year we are going to try to bring a few more of our ecosystem products. And again, it's trying to match those two lists - what is highest on the want list and what we think we can do a good job at. And when I say good job, I mean in software, in service, in stock, customisation for India, and everything. Each product is different and each product requires a different set of challenges.
WION: What next Mi product, other than the phones, can we see coming to India?
Jai: Which ones do you want?
WION (with laughter): Does it matter?
Jai: It does matter a lot.
WION: Like one person's feedback?
Jai: Everybody's feedback matters. It matters a lot because we can't launch everything overnight. That would be a disaster. So, we, in addition to deciding which things we can do, well, we have to pick the order. I think the rice cooker could be great because Indians eat a lot of rice. But, is it the right thing to launch now? First, probably not. I think if we could do TVs, laptops, routers - those kind of things - before rice cooker, I think that would make more sense. You know, I think you wanted air purifier, we are definitely committed to that. Honestly, we still haven't decided everything. So, it is helpful to get feedback from people on what they want us to launch.
WION: Can we see rice cooker in the near future in India?
Jai: I don't know. I mean, I think, right now, the current product is not really ideal for India. We have to do a lot of work to convince people. There is a traditional way for making rice. People have their recipes. Trying to convince them to use a new product (a completely different style of rice cooker) would be a little bit challenging. Whereas in China, that market exists. We just made a better product. So it's much easier thing to do there.
WION: Coming to the most-anticipated question. The Mi 6 India launch. When is it coming?
Jai: So, last year, we did Mi 5. So, we have done one flagship device every year. So the first flagship product in India was the Mi 3, then followed by the Mi 4, and then the last year we did the Mi 5.
I think, with our Redmi devices, we have done a really good job. Between like Rs 6000-Rs 15000, we are doing a really awesome job. Each of those products is better than any other product in its category. I think, in flagships, each year we kind of learn from each launch and improve every year. Like in the Mi 4, one of the things that people complained about was it came too late (like 5-6 months after the launch in China). The Mi 5 India launch, however, was within a month of the launch in China. So, that I think, we did a good job. The Mi 5, I think, where we made a mistake was we should have launched the higher storage variants. We didn't launch the 64GB version. That was a mistake.
So, in all, we are definitely going to launch one flagship device in India. But I guess, it sounds like I am saying the same thing every time. But it is, honestly, the way product companies work. We are going to pick the one that we think we can do the best job in. So, we need to make sure things are really good whatever device we bring. So, yes, with each flagship device, we made mistakes. I think we have gone better each time. But, this year, as to which specific flagship or Mi 6, I am not going to say anything. But that's our philosophy.
WION: But it's coming soon. Can it be said?
Jai: I can't say anything on that except that we will look at it in a holistic way. We take a look at all the flagship devices and try to figure out which one do we think has the best shot.
WION: And in terms of strategy, when it comes to launching the flagships, what are you going to revise for the Mi 6 launch?
Jai: Well, I never said anything about the Mi 6 launch. I think, we will try to improve upon everything. I think, certainly, we won't make the mistake of variants - which was one of the problems we had with the Mi 5. I think, we will definitely try to keep things quick. And then, yes, I think, as far as this specific product, it actually has nothing to do with price. If we had launched the Mi Mix, I think, it could have been really successful here. Now, I think it's too late to launch it. But yes, we are making sure that we launch the product that people want is probably on top of the list. We know how to sell phones, we just need to sell the right phone.
WION: By 2014, Xiaomi had grabbed the largest share of the smartphone market in China, but in 2016, it came down to the no. 5 position. Like the company lost the game to Huawei and Oppo. What do you think have been the reasons that the company, despite such a good performance, is going down in the number game?
Jai: I am not the best person to talk about the China market. But you know, I think the smartphone industry, arguably, is the most competitive industry in the world. And it is very quick. Fortunes can change overnight. Like Nokia was a huge company and ran out of business overnight. I think, we have done a good job in staying competitive. If you have seen our global expansion, especially in India, it has been really good. So, I think, obviously, things change each year and I certainly wouldn't count this out anymore. We are definitely still making really great products, which in my opinion, is what matters the most.
WION: Coming to my last question, Hugo Barra's exit from Xiaomi happened at the time when the company was trying to make inroads into global markets. So has that exit led to any change in the way Xiaomi devised its strategy? Or has it been a setback for the company in anyway?
Jai: Hugo focused on the global business. And our global business is in a really good position in India. I think we feel in a very good place. And I think, nothing is a result of a single person. Hugo was very famous for his presentations and his sort of public persona. And those of us who worked with him know that that's actually not the thing he is best at. The thing he is really best at is really building a great team. I mean anything that we do is not done by a single person. Just because he is on stage doesn't mean that he is the one person who did everything. There is a huge team behind it and he built a great team. And I think we are in a good place globally - everywhere actually.
As far as the US is concerned, you know, we certainly have no plans to launch phones right now in the US. We are trying to go global in the sense that at CES we didn't launch any products there. But by being there gave us a lot of exposure.
We would love to launch in the US. But it is a very different market. People don't buy unlocked phones like they do here typically. Like the carrier requirements are very different. Even technically, the bands are very different. So I would argue that many companies that have launched in the US, not many of them have been really successful. So, we want to get the right pieces in place.