India

Xiaomi has a limited window to fix MIUI amid Chinese app ban

Brand perception matters the most right now

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Xiaomi is India’s top smartphone maker and it has been leading for a couple of years now. The brand is credited for revolutionizing affordable 4G smartphones in the country and since then, it has expanded to smart homes, wearables, IoT, and even luggage. However, the brand faces a fresh challenge unlike any other. Anti-China calls are at an all-time high and Chinese app makers are already facing the brunt. How long can a brand like Xiaomi survive?

In a recent interview with The Economic Times, Xiaomi India CEO, Manu Kumar Jain said, “Once or twice in the past one week or 10 days, there have been one or two episodes when people have come outside our stores and raised slogans… we haven’t seen any major episodes till now. But this, to us, appears more like Twitter reaction.”

India and China have radically increased their troop deployment in the bordering region of Ladakh. The skirmish has escalated severely after clashes broke out and both sides suffered casualties. The spread of Coronavirus had already seeded anti-China sentiments and the recent border crisis has watered them further.

India has already banned 59 Chinese origin apps in the country. Buyers are inclined to avoid Chinese goods and even companies are scrambling to reduce their dependence on Chinese imports.

In the middle of all the chaos is Xiaomi, the brand with a Chinese name. So far, the company hasn’t faced any drastic issues and phones continue to sell like hotcakes.

Thanks to local sourcing, marketing, and perception of the company, it has become a household name in India. Adding to this, its affordable offerings are unmatchable, giving it a natural edge over the others. But all of this could soon tumble like a house of cards.

MIUI — the elephant in the room

Every time I review a Xiaomi phone, a few points are always common. The phone has a solid design, cameras are usually above average, and battery backup is spot-on. Performance depends on the processor and we’ve seen top-notch results in most phones. However, everyone, including me, has one complaint — MIUI and its ads.

MIUI is a mature skin and has been crucial for Xiaomi’s rise as a phone maker. With a new iteration coming every year, it has developed a fan following equivalent to Google’s stock Android releases. Filled to the brim with features, it’s perfect for everyone. But, it incorporates a very complex web of apps that are supposed to be an extension of MIUI.

Apps like Mi Video are notorious for pushing ads in the UI. Furthermore, apps like GetApps and Themes will constantly recommend content that you can download. These too, are essentially ads.

On a normal day, the notifications tab is filled with ads and bloatware suggestions. Keep in mind, the phone already ships with a ton of bloatware and is now asking you to install more.

Users have often complained about “indecent” or “inappropriate” ads showing up on their phone. Xiaomi announced last year it’s working on fixing the issue.

This year, two apps by Xiaomi — Mi Browser Pro and Mint Browser, were caught collecting a huge amount of data about any website a user visits, even in incognito mode. The data was sent to remote servers, sparking a fresh controversy on Xiaomi’s reliability. These apps often ship by default on MIUI phones.

MIUI 12 incorporates a host of new features that focus on improving the privacy and overall security of the phone and its data. However, MIUI 12 roll-out is still in the early stages and won’t act as an immediate stop-gap measure that’s required right now.

Xiaomi’s brand perception is on the line now

India banned 59 apps including TikTok for safety concerns. These apps have a notorious history of collecting too much user data without clear consent.

Many of them are serial offenders who’ve built their business models around data collection and ad targeting. Adding to this, their Chinese origin adds a layer of opaque international bureaucracy and practically impossible enforcement.

Alibaba backed UC Browser and UC News feed on your information and thrive by delivering ads. Irrespective of whether they’re relevant or not. The apps are a security researcher’s nightmare.

When I compare the behavior of UC Browser against Xiaomi’s stock apps, the difference isn’t big enough. Both push cheap and desperate ads in my notifications area.

Wouldn’t any average Joe feel the same? Pretty much every app included in India’s ban list has a strong history of flouting basic moral conduct. Xiaomi, being a respected brand in the hardware space, cannot afford to be included in this list.

I’m not saying ads are bad. Google is the world’s largest advertising company and it operates with transparency. The company is liable for privacy lapses and laws like GDPR (European Union) exert a moral responsibility on the company’s management. This accountability is lost as soon as we reach China.

Safe vs affordable: which side will you choose?

Xiaomi started integrating ads in the user interface because it helped in making the actual phone cheaper. A considerable chunk of Xiaomi’s revenue is dependent on bloatware (pre-installed apps) and ads.

In the short-term, the brand is able to sell more phones thanks to aggressive pricing and earn ad revenue in the longer run. But, times are changing and geopolitical forces exert more pressure than ever.

Now’s the time for Xiaomi to decide — can it let go of some revenue in exchange for long-term brand perception? These ads are clearly not helping the company make a point and users are gradually understanding the value of their data.

With the recent app ban, a Chinese app or software that delivers ads is inherently assumed to be compromised or risky.

The company may have to rework their product pricing or could move away from ads in a phased mnner with new phones. It can also offer a monthly subscription wherein users can opt-out of ads and data collection. But selling privacy after selling you a device may not go down well for many users. Amazon has tried this subscription model with its Fire tablet lineup that targets the entry-level segment.

If Chinese phone makers want to sell units anywhere in the world, one thing’s for sure — they need to focus on privacy as a fundamental right and not a privilege. The Huawei ban has proved that getting in the bad books of non-allied nations could mean doom for them.

India

realme launches narzo 20 Pro with Helio G95, 65W fast charging

Xiaomi should be worried

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realme started the narzo series earlier this year and it’s all set to launch a successor. The narzo 20 series consists of the narzo 20A, narzo 20, and narzo 20 Pro. These phones are made for the affordable segment and will be directly competing against the Redmi Note 9 series and POCO X2.

The phone features a reflective design that creates a multi-layer downward arrow pattern. Continuing realme’s design language, it features a vertical quad-camera setup with the narzo branding in focus. The fingerprint scanner is located on the side.

On the front is a 6.5-inch LCD display with Full HD+ resolution, 90Hz refresh rate, Gorilla Glass protection, and a punch-hole cut-out for the front camera.

Powering the phone is an octa-core MediaTek Helio G95 processor with Mali-G76 MC4 GPU. Storage is expandable via a dedicated microSD card slot. It has a new carbon fiber cooling system that ensures consistent performance during extended usage.

The rear features a quad-camera setup consisting of a 48-megapixel primary sensor, an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens, a 2-megapixel macro lens, and a 2-megapixel depth sensor. On the front is a 16-megapixel camera for selfies. The software supports night filters, AI enhancement, and improved low-light performance.

Backing these internal is a 4500mAh battery that supports 65W fast charging. realme claims it can fully charge the battery in 38 minutes. Lastly, the phone ships with realme IU out-of-the-box.

The narzo 20 Pro costs INR 14,999 for 6GB+64GB and INR 16,999 for 8GB+128GB. It’ll be available in Black Ninja and White Knight color options and shall go on sale from September 25 via Flipkart, realme.com, and offline stores.

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Apps

Google removes one of India’s top payments app for violating policy

But there’s nothing to worry about

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Google removed one of India’s top payments app Paytm from the Play Store for allegedly violating guidelines. To be more precise, the app violated the app store’s policy by promoting gambling. The app is still available on Apple’s App Store though.

In response, Google said, “The app was blocked for violation of play policies – a clarification of our policy was released earlier today ahead of the IPL tournament.” It further clarified that users aren’t affected and only the app’s availability from the Play Store has changed.

Google strictly prohibits digital casinos or ungoverned gambling apps on its Play Store in India and Paytm’s app was found in violation of this policy. Recently, it launched a fantasy sports service called Paytm First Games and embedded links to this service within the Paytm app.

The standalone Paytm First Games app has also been removed. However, other apps like Paytm Mall, Paytm Money, and Paytm Business are still available and remain untouched. Google said the developer is always notified and the app shall remain unavailable till it complies with the norms.

Paytm has also assured all users that their accounts, wallets, and bank accounts are safe and there’s nothing to worry about. When the news broke, there was some initial panic because the memories of India’s app ban are still fresh and people are worried about their favorite apps going off the shelf instantaneously.

Fantasy sports games and other gambling apps have radically risen in India. The country loves cricket and the Indian Premier League is scheduled to start from tomorrow. Making the coming weeks a very lucrative period for these apps.

All these apps do not depend on Google’s Play Store for distribution and have to be downloaded externally via the developer’s website.

Paytm is hugely credited for encouraging India’s digital economy and has transformed itself into a super app. Besides bill payments and peer-to-peer fund transfer, the app can also be used for tickets, shopping, and entertainment.

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India

Redmi 9i launches with Helio G25, 5000mAh battery

Designed for everyday tasks

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Xiaomi has consistently launched a new phone in the last few weeks. After the Redmi 9 Prime and Redmi 9, the brand has launched a slightly more affordable option — the Redmi 9i.

The body of the phone looks similar to the Redmi 9 Prime but doesn’t have a textured back. On the front is a 6.5-inch LCD display with HD+ resolution and TÜV Rheinland Low Blue Light certification.

Powering the phone is an octa-core MediaTek Helio G25 chipset along with MG PowerVR GE8320 GPU. It doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner and solely relies on face unlock for faster authentication.

On the rear is a single 13-megapixel camera with AI-powered portrait mode, in-built document scanner, and beauty mode. For selfies, a 5-megapixel camera is located on the front in a water-drop notch. The storage is expandable via a microSD card.

Backing these internals is a 5000mAh battery with a 10W charger. Although, this one skips the usual USB-C port in favor of microUSB. It ships with MIUI 12 out-of-the-box.

The Redmi 9i comes in two variants. The 4GB+64GB option costs INR 8,299 while the 4GB+128GB variant is priced at INR 9,299. Sale starts from September 18 via mi.com, Flipkart, Mi Homes, and Mi Studios.

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