Xiaomi faces copycat charge from Japanese company over new air purifier

After taking heat for allegedly lifting design ideas from Apple, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi is now facing copycat claims over its air purifier device, which a Japanese company claims closely resembles its own product.

Xiaomi on Tuesday unveiled its smartphone-controlled “Mi Air Purifier” for the Chinese market. But local press in the country was quick to point out to similarities between Xiaomi’s product and an air purifier from Japan’s Balmuda, a maker of electric fans. Both devices are shaped similarly, and appear as tall rectangular boxes that can filter the surrounding air.

Late on Wednesday, Balmuda responded to Xiaomi’s air purifier, posting to its official account on Chinese social networking site Sina Weibo.

“It was discovered that Xiaomi’s air purifier is surprisingly similar to a product that we released in 2012,” wrote Balmuda’s head of product design Gen Terao.”I personally was very bewildered by this.”

Balmuda’s “Air Engine” purifier is also being sold in China, where it has been popularly received, the company said in a separate posting. Xiaomi, at one point, had even talked about a partnership, but Balmuda declined because its developers were too busy, it added.

In addition, Balmuda was also granted patents in both China and Japan that relate to the air purifier’s technology and design. Neither Xiaomi nor its affiliates have been granted access to these patents, Balmuda added.

“Balmuda is currently in talks with company lawyers to confirm whether Xiaomi made any infringements,” it said. “This will let us decide whether to take the next step in legal measures.”

Xiaomi’s own air purifier was developed in partnership with a local company it invested in called Zhimi Technology. On Thursday, Zhimi responded by stating that its air purifier was completely different from Balmuda’s in terms of technology and exterior design.

In an Internet posting, Zhimi highlighted the differences between the two products in pictures posted side-by-side. To develop the air purifier, the Chinese firm said it applied for 31 different technology patents relating to the fan and other key components.

Products including refrigerators, televisions, air conditioners all use a similar exterior look that’s based on mature design concepts, the company said. “We disagree with arguments that say ‘we must be different for the sake of being different,’ or that ‘we need to reinvent the wheel.’” it added.

The Xiaomi air purifier will be sold later this month at 899 yuan (US$146), while Balmuda’s product goes for 5499 yuan on Amazon.

Some of Xiaomi’s other products, including its smartphones and tablets, have drawn comments about looking too similar to Apple devices. In late October, Xiaomi vice president Hugo Barra defended the company from the copycat claims.

“Our designers, our engineers, are inspired by great products and by great design out there. And frankly who in today’s world isn’t?” he said.

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