By Paul Carsten
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Xiaomi Inc [XTC.UL] staked its claim to Apple Inc's crown on Thursday as the world's third-biggest smartphone maker and most valuable tech start-up unveiled the flagship Mi Note, its challenger to Apple's iPhone 6 Plus.
Chief Executive Lei Jun introduced the Mi Note in Beijing with a breakdown of the large-screen phone's technical features, with multiple comparisons to Apple's equivalent. At 2299 yuan ($371) for a model with 16 gigabytes of memory, the Mi Note will retail for almost two-thirds less than the iPhone 6 Plus.
Just three years after Xiaomi sold its first smartphone, a $1.1 billion round of fundraising announced in December valued the firm at $45 billion. The privately held company has risen to become the world's No. 3 smartphone maker and is challenging Apple and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd as well as domestic rivals such as Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL].
Xiaomi takes efforts to play down comparisons with Cupertino, California-based Apple, though it is commonly called the 'Apple of China'.
"The Mi Note is shorter, thinner and lighter than the iPhone," Lei told his audience of thousands gathered in the north of China's capital.
Lei wore a light-blue shirt, eschewing his previously favoured black top, jeans and sneakers, reminiscent of Apple founder Steve Jobs' trademark black turtleneck and jeans.
"Xiaomi is an innovative start-up company, with a short history," said Lei. The company has been frequently criticised for allegedly copying other tech companies, most notably Apple. "In 10 years we will have tens of thousands of patents."
Lei also laid out Xiaomi's strategy to connect its smartphones with Xiaomi-branded home appliances, allowing phone users to remotely control washing machines, air purifiers and surveillance cameras.
"In five to 10 years all devices will become smart devices," he said. "If every smart device and every device at home can be seamlessly connected to the cloud, what could our life be like? It would be beautiful and easy."
Xiaomi weathered a decline in overall smartphone sales in China last year to see revenue more than double to 74.3 billion yuan ($11.99 billion) from 2013. .
The company sold more than 61 million handsets in 2014, up 227 percent from a year earlier. In China, the world's biggest smartphone market, overall sales fell 8 percent, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
On Monday, Reuters exclusively reported that Lei and Facebook Inc CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed a potential investment by Facebook in China's top smartphone maker ahead of last month's fundraising, but a deal never materialised.
($1 = 6.1898 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Editing by Christopher Cushing)