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Xiaomi Showdown: Chinese upstart set to target high-end market with 'premium' metal handset

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi —known for its disruptive high-spec, low-cost Android handsets —appears ready to make a move upmarket with the launch of an all-metal device after inviting members of the media to an event with invitations stamped from steel.

Xiaomi has dubbed the July 22 press conference "The Journey of a Piece of Steel," seemingly in reference to the milling and machining processes used to take steel from blanks to a finished product. As if to drive home their point, the company formed each invitation in the shape of a mobile phone case.

If true, Xiaomi's move could represent a play to take on Apple in Xiaomi's home market of China, where the company is already hot on the heels of Android market leader Samsung. Beijing-based Xiaomi is well-liked throughout the Asian nation for the value of its products, but —unlike its Californian rival —it is not considered a luxury brand.

Metal casings have become one of the primary differentiators for high-end consumer electronics in recent years, driven in large part by Apple's success with its trademark aluminum. They remain relatively rare in mobile phones, however, largely due to their high cost in comparison to injection-molded plastic alternatives.

Brand position notwithstanding, Xiaomi has made major advances in recent years, attracting both consumers and technical talent. With CEO Lei Jun often styled as "China's Steve Jobs," the company also snagged Android product executive Hugo Barra from Google late last year.

In a Monday morning note to investors, a copy of which was provided to AppleInsider, Needham & Co. analyst Charlie Wolf called out Xiaomi as the company best positioned to dethrone Samsung as the top Android smartphone manufacturer in Asia.

The money Xiaomi saves with its unconventional marketing and sales tactics —including a heavy reliance on social media and internet sales —is "plowed back into high-quality components while keeping retail prices down to around $270 for its top-selling brand," Wolf wrote. "Although sales are just beginning to move up, Xiomi [sic] has plans to invade most of the countries in southeast Asia and possibly some in Europe. Its biggest challenge likely will be to spread its brand in countries outside of China without breaking the marketing bank."