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Xiaomi takes a crack at India, can it succeed?

India's smartphone market: Samsung dominates it, Apple has had measured success with it and now the firm known as "China's Apple" wants a crack at it too.

Xiaomi last week unveiled its flagship Mi phone and said it plans to invest heavily in India, where analysts say the Chinese firm has an advantage with its low-cost but sleek smartphones.

Xiaomi's success partly comes from the affordability of its phones and analysts says this puts it in a strong position against its rivals in the Indian market given that fancy handsets are unaffordable to most Indian consumers.

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"Apple iPhones are very expensive and out of reach of more than 90 percent of Indian consumers.

Having said that, Apple still has potential and aspiring brand-savvy urban consumers to target," said Neil Shah, research director, devices and ecosystems at Counterpoint Technology Market Research.

"Xiaomi on the other hand is offering semi-premium hardware at a very low price and at the same time building content, apps and services ecosystem to lock-in users," he added. "So barriers to acquire tens of millions of consumers are pretty low for Xiaomi compared to Apple."

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Xiaomi's new smartphone, the Mi 3, is priced at 13,999 rupees ($230) and analysts say its features are comparable to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4, which starts at roughly 28,000 rupees.

It's no surprise that global smartphone firms have their sights on India – it's the world's second-biggest mobile phone market behind China and the world's third-largest smartphone market in terms of sales volumes.

Xiaomi’s Mi 3 phone.
Source: Xiaomi
Xiaomi’s Mi 3 phone.

Growing

Counterpoint estimates that of the more than 243 handsets that will be sold in India this year, roughly 90 million will be smartphones.

"Smartphones are pegged to grow at a rapid clip of almost 76 percent annually this year in India, making it a very attractive market for any brand in the mobile space," said Shah.

According to industry estimates, Apple has a less than 5 percent share in the Indian smartphone market.

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Xiaomi, which has a strong following in China and is one of the country's biggest consumer electronics firms, needs to broaden out beyond the China market if it is to be successful in the smartphone space, analysts say.

"Xiaomi has a brand worth of something like $20 billion dollars so it needs to be in a broader market than just the China market, which is slowing," Bryan Wang, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research told CNBC last week.

In addition to India, Xiaomi is also expected to focus on other emerging markets such as Indonesia to tap an increasingly affluent middle class.

"Xiaomi does have momentum, it has opportunities, but it does need to step up with the big guys if it wants to be a sustainable force long-term," said Richard Windsor, founder of Radio Free Mobile.

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Xiaomi's International Vice President Hugo Barra told Reuters last week that the firm planned to build India-specific features for its phones and set up a local team to help penetrate the market.

Challenges

Xiaomi is expected to face tough competition from local vendors as well as the likes of Apple and Samsung in India.

"Specifically in India there are local vendors that have good configurations," said Wang at Forrester Research told CNBC Asia last week. "They have been grabbing decent market share."

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According to Counterpoint's Shah, India is home to more than 100 brands selling mobile phones.

"Brands like Nokia, Samsung and the new crop of local brands such as Micromax, Karbonn, Lava are growing because these brands have over the years invested in three things: building brand; distribution network; after sales service network," said Shah.

"These are the three critical success factors for any brand to succeed in Indian mobile phone market apart from positioning well for price-conscious consumers," he added.

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