Xiaomi knocks Apple off #2 spot – but will it become the next Huawei?

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
(Image credit: Xiaomi)

It's official: Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi is now the second largest smartphone maker in the world. In last quarter's results it had a 17% share of global smartphone shipments, ahead of Apple’s 14% and behind Samsung’s 19%. And let's be clear: that is seriously big news.

The company is obviously doing something very right, with its sales jumping 300% year on year in Latin America and 50% in Western Europe. So if you're in the hunt for a new smartphone, it may be time to see why it's become such a popular choice – check out our guide to the best Xiaomi phones for full details.

• Read more: Best camera phones

Before you get too excited, though, a word of warning: Xiaomi was on a US government blacklist until very recently, and there's no absolute guarantee that won't happen again. And we all know what happened to Huawei, which likewise knocked Apple down the food chain a couple of years ago.

So what's the current situation, and is it wise to invest in a Xiaomi phone right now?

(Image credit: Xiaomi)

First, a short history lesson. In January, during his final days in office, President Trump added Xiaomi to the US military list under the National Defense Authorization Act of 1999. This would have prevented American investment in the smartphone manufacturer entirely.

Xiaomi denied the allegations and responded with a lawsuit and, in March, a federal court halted the investment ban, saying that it was unlawful and unconstitutional. Finally, in May new President Joe Biden lifted the ban officially

None of this has legally prevented Xiaomi from operating in the States, and American citizens have continued to buy and use their Xiaomi phones – probably without ever noticing anything had happened. 

And so now the ban is lifted, we can all go back to just thinking about the tech itself and whether it suits our needs… right?

Why things might change

Well, yes and no. The legal uncertainty surrounding the ban has meant many US companies have been unwilling to stock and sell its phones. And while Xiaomi now seems to be legally in the clear, ironically the very fact it's overtaken Apple has thrust it back into the spotlight, at a time it would probably prefer a low profile.

Let's face it, jealousy is a powerful emotion. And if a Chinese firm is outdoing an American one, especially one as iconic as Apple, it may lead politicians and the media to pay it more unwanted attention. 

If either of these groups unearths new information that casts light on Xiaomi's innocence, or just makes it look undesirable in the eyes of the American Right, a President who makes a virtue out of pursuing cross-party consensus may well come under pressure to reinstate the ban.

Even that danger, though, is not necessarily a reason to avoid buying a Xiaomi phone. After all, Huawei is currently the subject of stringent restrictions in the US and has been for some time. But anyone with a Huawei phone designed before the ban can still get updates, use Android, and basically do everything they could do previously. This writer has one himself, and is very happy with it. For more on this, see our guide to the best Huawei phones

So even government bans aren't necessarily the end of the world when it comes to day-to-day use. 

What will Apple do?

(Image credit: Apple)

What might be a bigger consequence of Xiaomi overtaking Apple, though, is how the latter responds. Apple has been losing momentum for a number of years, so while slumping to third place is a shock it's not entirely a surprise.

Let's face it, the iPhone changed the game entirely. Then the iPad did the same again. Since then, though, things have been pretty quiet on the world-shattering innovation front.

We wonder, then, if this is the final kick in the backside Apples needs to start truly innovating again. If it is, then the conversation over Chinese brands will become moot, as Apple brings out a new type of phone, or a new type of device in general, that puts everything else in the shade. Here's hoping…

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specializing in art, photography, design and travel. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, T3, Heat, Company and Bella.