David Barboza, for the NYTimes on company, Xiaomi, the Apple Knock-off Extraordinaire of China:
China is notorious for its knockoffs. But now comes a knockoff of one of the gods of American ingenuity: Steven P. Jobs.
In a country where products like iPhones are made but rarely invented, Lei Jun — entrepreneur, billionaire and professed Jobs acolyte — is positioning himself and his company as figurative heirs of Mr. Jobs. The Chinese media have nicknamed his company, Xiaomi, the “Apple of the East.”
The title is a stretch, by almost any measure. But Mr. Lei nonetheless is carefully cultivating a Jobsian image here, right down to his jeans and dark shirts. He is also selling millions of mobile phones that look a lot like iPhones. Chinese consumers — and deep-pocketed investors overseas — seem to be believers.
And yet Mr. Lei’s biggest believer may be himself. He bounds onto podiums to introduce new cellphones. He proclaims things that may, to many, sound outlandish. For instance:
“We’re making the mobile phone like the PC, and this is a totally new idea,” Mr. Lei, Xiaomi’s chief executive, said during an interview at the company’s spacious, high-rise headquarters here. “We’re doing things other companies haven’t done before.”
It brings to mind a quote I love by fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto:
Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.
Yamamoto is absolutely right. All creative people—artists, musicians, writers, designers, athletes—all start out by imitating their idols. This is how you learn. Copying is a meaning to an end with most creatives, true creatives.
For people like Lei Jun though, copying seems to be the end, not the means. There’s no desire to try and copy Apple with the intention to at some point leap-frog them and do something better.
At least with Android there’s are clear lines of departure between it and iOS. Android started life copying iOS very closely, but because the philosophies of Google and Apple differ so much, Android has charted it’s own hackable, “open”, ad-monetized course.
Imagine what Xiaomi is doing with aping Apple’s product and software design in any other industry. Imagine Kia copying the design of the 458 Italia by Ferrari. Or if Nickleback decided to clone the sound of Radiohead and call themselves TelevisionLegs. You can do these things, but it doesn’t make it right or admirable.
I can’t respect posers.