Hugo Barra at Xiaomi: why it’s important

August 30, 2013
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Questions abound after Google’s Hugo Barra announced a surprise move to Xiaomi, the rising star of the Chinese mobile industry.

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Do you know Xiaomi? If you regularly read this blog and others like it, there’s a good chance you’re at least aware of the up and coming Chinese phone maker. But ask somebody who isn’t into mobile tech about Xiaomi and, most likely, you’ll only get a blank stare.

But that might be changing, and fast, now that Hugo Barra, who used to be one of the most visible members of the Android team, has joined the company.

The Brazilian MIT graduate joined Google in 2008, after a four-year stint at Nuance, the voice recognition company. Barra rose swiftly through the ranks at Google and joined the Android team in 2011, at a time when the operating system was going through a massive transformation with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich. He became one of the most public figures in the Android team, making onstage appearances at Google I/O and introducing the two generations of the Nexus 7 in 2012 and 2013.

On Wednesday, Barra confirmed reports that he left Google, without specifying a reason. Some have speculated that personal issues were at play, but that could be just gossip.

What exactly will Barra do at Xiaomi?

It’s clear that Hugo Barra is a huge catch for Xiaomi. Officially, he will be “Vice President of Xiaomi Global”. But what does that mean?

Barra announced on Google Plus that he would join “the Xiaomi team in China to help them expand their incredible product portfolio and business globally”. Talking to All Thing D, Xiaomi co-founder Bin Lin said he views Barra as a great addition to the team, that will help the company expand internationally “late this year or early next year”. Xiaomi only recently started doing business in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The company only sold its first smartphone in 2011, but, using clever marketing and aggressive pricing, managed to obtain an impressive 2.5 percent of the huge Chinese market in Q2 2013. For reference, Apple scored 4.6 percent and Samsung, the market leader, had 18.6 percent in the same period.

Barra is carrying a huge asset right in his head – he’s aware of Google’s plans for Android for the next years

Bin Lin publicly stated that Xiaomi wants to be the “Amazon of China”, not the “Apple of China” as media often portrays it. In other words, the company wants to make its money from the services it offers to its smartphone customers, rather than from ever-diminishing hardware margins. Like Google, Xiaomi offers its own suite of cloud apps, as well as a market place for third party applications. The company is also developing its own flavor of Android, dubbed MIUI ROM, which does away with some of Google’s apps and services in favor of in-house developed alternatives.

At a basic level, expect Barra to become the public face of Xiaomi. Who knows, maybe next year he’ll be announcing the Xiaomi Mi-4 on a stage somewhere.

With his software expertise, Hugo Barra can help guide the development of MIUI ROM and Xiaomi’s services, as well as work to make them attractive to international users. Barra is also carrying a huge asset right in his head – he’s aware of Google’s plans for Android for the next couple of years. NDAs and all, that can be hugely important for any Android manufacturer, especially one that bets its future on software and services, rather than hardware.

What does Barra’s move to Xiaomi mean for the average Android user? Unlike some other commentators, I don’t think it’s ominous. Google has a huge reservoir of talent at its disposal, and the Android team is brimming with brilliant people as it is. So the effect of Barra’s departure is likely to be minimal from that perspective.

But the rise of Xiaomi is significant for all Android users, because it foretells a future where hardware is the least important component of the mobile experience.

With or without Hugo Barra onboard, prepare to read more about Xiaomi in the coming years.

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