Six months. Half a year. A hell of a lot can change in that sort of time in technology terms.

In July 2014, Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra made a room packed with the nation’s tech media gasp and break out in appreciative applause when he announced the superbly specced Mi 3 at a price that was mind-bogglingly low.
Fast forward to January 28, 2015, he unveiled the Mi 3’s successor, the Mi 4. Once again, the specs were terrific. Once again, the price was amazingly low.

hugo-barra

But this time, there were no gasps of amazement. And the applause was significantly lower.

No, it was not as if Xiaomi and Barra had lost their midas touch (we are ready to wager a good sum that the Mi 4 will get sold out within minutes, if not seconds, of going on sale online on February 10). It was just that in six short months, the concept of the expensive Android flagship had taken a hammering.

You want to play, you don’t have to pay… well, too much!

If that makes you cock a cynical eyebrow, then cast your minds right back to the day before Barra unveiled the Mi 3 in India and consider the Android flagships in the market. There was the Samsung Galaxy S5, which had started out at Rs 51,500 but had seen its price drop to about Rs 37,000. There was the HTC One M8, which was priced well north of Rs 40,000. And there was the Sony Xperia Z2, which had been launched at Rs 49,990 only a couple of months ago. Waiting in the wings and soon to be launched at the LG G3, which would command a price tag of Rs 47,990. And well, if you wanted an Android device with flagship specs that did not blow a massive hole in your wallet, you could choose either the Nexus 5 which was priced close to Rs 28,000 or the Gionee Elife E7, which was priced at Rs 26,999.

You get the idea? You wanted a high-end Android device, a flagship so to speak, you would have to shell out something well in the north of Rs 25,000, maybe even almost twice that amount, depending on the brand and model you chose.

Into this market, Xiaomi dropped the Mi 3, which had specs on par with the Nexus 5, for a price that got those gasps of amazement and applause referred to in the first paragraph.

Rs 13,999.

Perhaps no device had stunned people with its price as much as the Mi 3 did. Yes, Motorola had surprised a few people with the surprisingly affordable Moto G and the Moto E, but neither of those had claimed to be a flagship or high-end performer. The Mi 3 on the other hand was pretty much right up close to the best in terms of performance and hardware, while literally costing a fraction of their prices. Cynics pointed out that it was an older device (Xiaomi actually unveiled the Mi 4 in China a week after releasing the Mi 3 in India), but even the most hard-nosed of them was forced to concede that this was indeed a high-specced phone at a shockingly low price.

High end is NOT equal to high price?

There were many, however, who thought that this was just a one-off. Xiaomi was after all, a company that sold its phones only online and that too in limited numbers. It was unlikely that other manufacturer would follow their model. Even we had raised cynical eyebrows at some who predicted that prices of flagship devices would come tumbling down following Xiaomi’s arrival.

However, the last few weeks of 2014 were marked by a flurry of releases of devices that were cast in the Xiaomi mould when it came to the price-performance ratio. Huawei released the Honour 6, Lenovo the Vibe X2 and then of course, there was the little matter of the OnePlus One, which finally arrived on Indian shores.

The result: Suddenly, getting a device with good hardware and high-end performance (contrary to what a lot of people believe, the Vibe X2 and Honour 6 are very good performers) for a price that was in the region of Rs 20,000 was not a pipe dream.

Of course, a key component to remember here is the fact is that these offers came from brands who were relatively smaller players in the Indian market and who took the online only route to keep their prices on the lower side. The bigger brands – the likes of Samsung, Sony, HTC, Nokia and LG – still do not have new devices with full HD displays for under Rs 25,000. Apple continues to do very well in spite of having a flagship that is more than two and a half times as expensive as the Mi 4. What’s more, at the time of writing, none of these players seem too keen to push relatively affordable flagships into the Indian market – HTC perhaps came the closest with the HTC One E8, which was surprisingly priced under Rs 35,000, but even that looks ridiculously exorbitant when compared with the likes of the Mi 4 and the OnePlus One.

So yes, the big brands seem to be keeping faith with high-priced flagships. For now. The question, however, is just how long they can sustain this. For, barring Apple (which continues to cash in on its exclusivity – you cannot get iOS on a non-Apple device), the others have to deal with consumers who are steadily realising that a great smartphone experience need not cost a bomb.

Being rocked by budget bombshells!

And the effects are showing. A year ago, most tech pundits would have considered the HTC Desire Eye to be very reasonably priced by HTC standards at Rs 35,000, given its spec sheet. Today? Five out of six tech journalists I talked to considered it too expensive.

xiaomi-mi4-review4

Heck a year ago, Xiaomi would have brought the house down had he released something like the Mi 4 at a price of Rs 19,999. Yesterday? The announcement set off a bunch of murmurs, with some people comparing the device with the Vibe X2 and the OnePlus One, some worrying about the absence of expandable memory and 4G.

No, I would not go as far as to say that the day of the high-priced Android flagship is over. A device like the Galaxy Note will always have takers, but we think that slapping a high price on a device based just on its spec sheet is getting increasingly difficult for most Android players. And a stage is likely to come when most of the so-called bigger brands will have to get off their high price horses and make their flagships a bit more affordable or more insanely innovative. The longer they put it off, the more consumers they are likely to lose to more adventurous newcomers like Xiaomi, Gionee, Lenovo and Huawei.

When I had reviewed the Mi 3 last year, I had closed my review with these sentences:

“I am not too sure it (the Xiaomi Mi 3) will bring flagship prices down, but it will force manufacturers to innovate more radically and more often, at all price points. For, whichever phone gets launched at a price tag that is above USD 235 will have to deal with one sentence: I can get a Mi 3 for less.”

I hate to say “I told you so” but heck, I did hint at this. But yes, I had not imagined a state of affairs in which a device with a full HD display, powered a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB RAM would be considered ‘slightly overpriced’ (yes, that was the term used by many people yesterday) at Rs 19,999.

No, they did not break into delirious applause at the announcement of the price of the Mi 4 like they did for its predecessor.

But that something tells me that that will bother the “big” brands more than it will bother Hugo Barra.

For, if a high-specced device is considered ‘slightly overpriced’ at Rs 19,999, what would a device have to do to be considered worthy of a price tag that is twice as much?

They are still afloat.

But Xiaomi and those following in their footsteps are slowly achieving what they set out to do.

Scuttling the high-priced Android flagship armada!


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Associate Editor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.