Xiaomi MIUI

Musician Jarvis Cocker once quipped about the Internet, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s very important.” I sort of feel the same way about the technology industry in China, which is growing at a massive rate and breaking all kinds of records.

Today I took a closer look at leading Chinese juggernaut Xiaomi, which has very quickly become the most consequential smartphone maker in the world’s largest smartphone market, and has also taken a lot of flack for blatantly copying Apple. Their MIUI variant on the Android operating system is particularly interesting.

The notion of forking Android has always sounded like a mess to me, but Xiaomi have apparently had a lot of success with it by instituting weekly updates to MIUI which have captivated their customers, who eagerly await each new release. The video for the upcoming MIUI version 5 showcases an operating system that, while short on innovation, is heavy on elegant transitions and animations. There is some nice stuff in here.

On the other hand, Xiaomi’s video explainer for “What is MIUI?” reveals something that’s likely closer to the reality of MIUI as one would find it in the wild: an OS that puts a premium on configurability at the expense of elegance, and UI skins that looks typically horrific. The most telling image is almost literally a junk drawer full of terrible user interface themes.

Image from “What is MYUI?”

In its second quarter, Xiaomi shipped 15 million phones in China, a performance which soundly beat Android powerhouse Samsung and more than tripled Xiaomi’s own shipments from the same period last year. That’s a rapidly growing population of software consumers actively using an interface that most of us in the West have never touched. I don’t know what this means, but I know it’s very important.