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Struggling Chinese Unicorn Xiaomi Bets on Smart Rice Cookers

Xiaomi, now No. 4 in the Chinese smartphone market it once dominated, has embraced the Internet of Things. The road ahead will be hard.
A customer looks at Xiaomi smart phones at a Xiaomi Home Store in Beijing on Oct. 19, 2016.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

On a recent afternoon in northern Beijing, Chinese 20-somethings lean over a long blond-wood table in a retail store, examining colorful smartphones and fitness bands. The white walls and spare space recall an Apple Store, but on display is a wider, and more curious, range of products: "smart" rice-cookers, hoverboards, robot vacuum cleaners, bathroom scales and air purifiers. A tall salesman in a bright blue T-shirt says they are planning to soon cordon off an area to demo Xiaomi drones.

The brightly lit store is one of 36 locations across Greater China operated by Xiaomi Corp., a Beijing-based smartphone-maker that has been frequently touted as the "Apple of China." But Xiaomi has a very different strategy: Instead of meticulously designing products in-house, guided by the technical and aesthetic vision of a Steve Jobs-like figure, Xiaomi is investing in dozens of Chinese hardware startups, branding the devices with the Xiaomi label, and selling them in stores and through its website.