Hugo Barra: North America is in Xiaomi’s pipeline – Exclusive

by: Bobby SitukangpolesJune 11, 2014

Hugo Barra Xiaomi -11

Editor’s note: This post is part of a three-piece profile on Xiaomi based on Bobby Situkangpoles’ interview with the company’s head of global expansion, Hugo Barra. The two other posts are:

Update: Xiaomi has reached out to us to clarify that it will not launch next year in North America. Current Xiaomi devices are not compatible with North American LTE bands; starting next year, Xiaomi will design products that are compatible with the US market, but there’s no timeline for an actual launch in the US.

“We will start working on North America next year…  It’s in the pipeline.”

Among the many revelations I had from Xiaomi’s event at the recent Indonesian Cellular Show, the statement above from Xiaomi’s Global VP, Hugo Barra, had got to be one of the most surprising.

He confidently uttered it on stage after I asked him the question during the Q&A session. I was so surprised that I asked him to explain what he meant in greater detail during our interview after the event.

He replied that what he meant with “next year” was that Xiaomi is definitely not looking to get into the North American market this year, as the company is currently busy preparing to enter ten new markets in parallel. He then explained how North America is a very challenging and competitive market. Nevertheless, although there are no official plans drawn on paper yet, he said that Xiaomi will likely start working its way to North America next year.

This is still a pretty ambitious stance, considering how much larger companies like HTC or Sony have been finding it hard to make a dent in the market.

Xiaomi’s chances in North America and the role of Nexus users

Unlike many smartphone consumers in emerging markets, North American consumers are used to buying phones on subsidized plans. In a market where most consumers perceive $200 as the “price” of flagship phones, Xiaomi’s extreme value might not be that much of an advantage.

Barra did not seem fazed when confronted with this fact.

“I believe in the future, people will be less and less tolerant to unnecessarily overpriced devices,” he said. He was adamant that this trend will be prevalent everywhere around the globe.

In the future, people will be less and less tolerant to overpriced devices

He then asked me to consider the Nexus user community — “These people are highly tech literate. They read the tech blogs, they care about specs, user experience and bang for the buck. These are the kind of people who will buy Xiaomi phones first.”

How will Xiaomi change its image with Western consumers?

If mainstream media is to be believed, many Western consumers still perceive Xiaomi as just another Chinese manufacturer that makes cheap products. Barra thinks Xiaomi can change this perception by “sitting down with them and show them what’s good about us.”

He believes that once he gets the chance to demo Xiaomi’s devices to them, their views will change.

“I’ve worked with Android for many years and I’ve always been impressed by the UI. I think the quality of the software (running) in the hardware is probably one of the most important things […] I believe that the quality of our software experience is superior to anything you see on the market,” Barra said.

Hugo Barra Xiaomi -8

“MIUI is a live OS”

He was referring to how Xiaomi’s custom Android version is completely user driven, with updates rolling out once a week based mostly on community input.

“It’s something that Google does very well internally […] we have taken that concept to a whole new level by allowing the whole world to essentially make our software better.”

“It is something that Google does very well internally but we have taken that concept to a whole new level”

According to Barra, if a user buys a Xiaomi phone now, then a year later that user can be certain that his or her phone will be better, “not just because there is a new version of Android but also because of the refinements we do (in that time frame).”

Another point that he thought was important is the fact that Xiaomi’s MIUI is completely customizable. This is something the demographic Barra referred to earlier would likely look forward to.

Xiaomi makes hardware the same way it builds its software

Barra thinks that Xiaomi is the only company in the world that is able to apply this fast iteration approach to the hardware side of the equation.

We don’t believe that hardware needs to take a year to develop … (due to our limited production batches) we can change our hardware from one production batch to another

The constant iteration is what Barra believes will help him win the hearts (and soul, mind you) of tech savvy users all over the world, including North America.

Xiaomi’s commitment to deliver top performance hardware at unbeatable value is another thing that Barra is certain will help him in his quest. Citing Xiaomi’s cheapest model as an example, he elaborated on the idea behind the product.

“With the Redmi, we wanted to build the fastest possible phone we can, with one constraint, and that constraint is price.” The initial design goal resulted in a $130 phone that (at launch) was as powerful as the previous year’s Nexus device.

He followed up by pointing out how the Mi 3, which launched more than half a year ago, is faster than the Galaxy S5, “even though the S5 runs a faster chipset”. He believes that this is another example of how Xiaomi’s constant refinement resulted in a device that gets better over time.

On criticisms on Mi Pad’s design

Another potential stumbling block for Xiaomi’s North American expansion is the perception that Xiaomi is “China’s Apple,” and not in a good way. The Mi Pad is not helping change that image either.

When one wants to build a tablet device that has a good grip, devoid of hard edges, and has a screen with an aspect ratio that makes sense, one does not have that many choices other than 4:3.

Barra admitted that he heard people saying that the Mi Pad looks like the iPhone 5C. He argued that it’s crazy to compare a tablet powered by a unique chipset (as it stands, the Mi Pad is the only device powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra K1) to a four-inch phone. As for the resemblance between Mi Pad and the iPad Mini, he said that if Xiaomi actually wanted to copy Apple’s device, it would have used an aluminum back and ditched the dual speakers.

Hugo Barra Xiaomi -14

He argued that when one wants to build a tablet device that has a good grip, devoid of hard edges, and has a screen with an aspect ratio that makes sense, one does not have that many choices other than 4:3.

To drive the point home, he grabbed my Galaxy Note 8.0 and said, “Look at this aspect ratio, it’s horrible. 16:10 is good for watching videos and not much else!”

To be honest, after actually playing with the Mi Pad, I found it hard to find faults in his arguments. The glossy back plastic provided an unexpectedly good grip, the curved edges made it comfortable to hold, and the tablet had a reassuring weightiness to it.

The pre-production device he showed me did not have demanding 3D games installed, but general UI performance was in-line with other Xiaomi devices I’ve tried, which means that it was buttery smooth all the way. Those rear facing dual speakers sounded great when Barra played some Minion Rush on the tablet. I found that they sounded just as good when I replayed our recorded conversation in the car as I drove home.

A stateside return?

There is no denying that, just like other Chinese companies, Xiaomi will be going up a steep hill as it attempts to change the perspective that Western consumers have on its brand and products.

Nonetheless, after seeing what I saw, I can’t help but feel optimistic, provided Barra can convince Americans to show some interest in his products.

Does this mean that Barra could be returning stateside in the future? He did not give any definite answer aside from a little smile, but, if I was a gambling man, I’d bet a tenner that he will.

Didit Putra from Kompas contributed to this article.

  • Anthony Evans

    Bring the mi pad to the US change the design so apple doesnt cry.. and you will do good.

    • Michael Stair

      Well wouldn’t you if you put all the time and effort into a design and someone steals it, and making money by stealing your work. It’s not just about Apple chinese manufacturers do this to Samsung and HTC and other big android makers. It’s simply dirty work and shows no originality as a company and deserves to get sued imo.

  • Thanks, but…

    …and what version of Android are available builds of MIUI currently based on?

    • datagutt

      MIUI is based on Android 4.4 on MI3 with snapdragon, Nexus 7 and Mipad. (MI3 version is currently in beta, stable build uses 4.3).
      MI-2 uses 4.1, and the ROMs for unofficial devices mostly use 4.2.

    • Airyl

      4.4 is currently in beta for Mi3, stable version is on 4.3. Also would like to ask if Android versions are relevant on a Xiaomi phone since MIUI pretty much covers the whole experience.

  • bob

    interesting, ex android chief is praising apple design decisions in both hardware and software. thats nice, one day i might be able to actually chose my device without making compromises.

    also, what does he mean by tech savvy? poor teenage geeks? those would definitely be swayed by price and specs. its just sad that less and less companies try to compete in the high-end market. sinking ships all around us, except those two…

    • Airyl

      When did he praise them? He only said that the user experience would be better with a screen of that ratio. Is any 8 inch rectangle an Apple clone now

      MIUI is basically iOS with everything iOS was supposed to have 4 years ago and more.

      Also, tech savvy refers to people who care about what’s in their devices and the overall value of their product. They’re not usually poor, but they prefer getting more value from their purchases instead spending a huge sum of money on something that doesn’t benefit them much. They also decide what they want themselves and back their decisions with facts.

      • bob

        facts like cpu clock and mpx?

        because i dont see anyone here talking about the actual UX. and the miui ux is very similar to a certain os.

        whats the nickname of xiaomi in china? should that tell you enough?

        and im not talking about the article per se, im talking about hugo barra, his history and the whole current situation. i bet he always respected apples decision. maybe thats why he left google? to work for apple of china ;)

        • Airyl

          Yes, facts like CPU clock and mpx.

          That’s because MIUI has been around for so long that almost much everyone knows about it. And if you’re implying Xiaomi stole from iOS, then you need to brush up on history. iOS 7 and 8 completely ripped off MIUI V5’s features, then dumb people like you come and tell us they copied iOS. The only similar thing is the interface, and that’s because the people in China preferred this interface as opposed to the normal Android interface. Aside from that, it’s pretty much been Apple ripping off Xiaomi, adds tree MiPad is a small jab at Apple for this.

          Xiaomi’s nickname is Apple of China, not because if their products but their popularity, you idiot. Maybe if you had learnt to read you could’ve known this. The fact that Xiaomi themselves never compare themselves to Apple and operate similarly to Amazon just shuts you out even further.

          This is the ultimate dumbness. You can’t read anything can you? Hugo Barra left Google for Xiaomi because Xiaomi was a massively successful up and coming start up, being third on the world’s most innovative companies list and having two phones on the world’s best selling list despite only selling their phones in China. Hugo knew this was a great opportunity. Getting Xiaomi global was a great step, and people all over the world now don’t need to spend over $600 for a high end phone. Hugo Barra never underestimated anyone, even Apple. But he was never impressed by Apple, he was impressed by Xiaomi, one of the world’s most successful companies.

          • bob

            as you should already know, facts like cpu clock and mpx dont mean much

            im not talking about ripping, i dont care about that. im talking about the overall user experience which is quite similar, purposely, to apples, down to the marketing photos:

            as you can see, xiaomi is impressed with apple and hugo barra is impressed with xiaomi. if you’ve read this article, you would know hugo barra is extremely proud of 4:3 aspect ratio. what aspect ratio nexus 7 has?

            high end phones are worth 700+. if you dont agree, we will maybe revisit this subject with me changing my opinion when xiaomi and the rest of android oems actually start making some money, samsung excluded. also, i dont think any meaningful r&d can come out of 200-300$ phones

            and btw, learn how to talk with other human beings, it will improve your life greatly ;)

          • Airyl

            Oh contraire. CPU clock speeds and megapixels do matter, take a simple look at the HTC ONE M8 for proof.

            No, Apple is impressed by Xiaomi, which is why they ripped a whole bunch of features from MIUI. This is simply Xiaomi retaliating.

            High end phones are worth 700+, sure. But only people with narcissistic problems like you can actually convince yourself an iPhone 5s is a better value than an Mi3. Anyone with a sense of logic can see the Mi3 offers more for less.

            Android OEMs do make money, just not thanks to close minded people like you. Take the Redmi. It’s the 7th best selling phone in the world, with the Mi3 at number 10. Keeping in mind that these used to only be sold in China, you can clearly see the demand for these. If they were low quality, do you think people would buy them this much. Convince yourself all you want, any Xiaomi phone is as well built as most flagships.

            I talk to people kindly, but hardheaded people like you need sense, not kindness.

  • s2weden2000

    The man…

  • realjjj

    He’s so damn wrong when it comes to the tablet AR, a 8.9 inch 16:10 display is as wide as their 7.85 inch 4:3 and yes the size of a 16:10 video is almost 44% bigger( the total area of the screen is just 20% bigger but the video’s AR favors the wide screen) but that doesn’t mean it is less in portrait , it is better for web and docs too. the only downside is slightly higher cost and weight.
    Plus the US press loves to label everybody as Apple copycats and Xiaomi should have know that doing what they did will damage their brand.
    The pricing is also rather high for what chinese consumers can afford and compared to the competition.

    What i would like to hear from Xiaomi is if they are looking at glasses , 3D printing and robots. Anyone that wants to be a giant must do that soon.
    And should expand faster all over the globe ofc, we all want better prices.

    • Airyl

      16:10 tablets are great.

    • abazigal

      Depends on how you look at it. All other things equal, a 4:3 7.85″ tablet will always offer more vertical screen estate compared to an equivalent 16:9 or 16:10 7.85″ tablet. This also means that your virtual keyboard doesn’t cover so much of your screen in landscape mode, and websites don’t look all odd because you have too much horizontal room.

      I too feel that a 4:3 tablet pretty much nails it. It would mean that Apple is right, and has always been right with regards to this.

  • jakes

    If that’s the case they better prepare for some lawsuits coming their way from the litigation happy fruit company

    • abazigal

      I agree.

      Part of their success in China is due to the weak copyright laws there (or rather, the blatant disregard for intellectual property), which has allowed them to avoid costly licensing fees and lawsuits. Would they have the resources to take on Apple in a costly and protracted lawsuit in the US?

      • Abram Carroll

        Apple could always change it’s design. Seeing as Apple’s A8 is considerably out matched by the MiPad’s Tegra K1, they are the knock off.

  • Corbin Crutch

    I am SO glad about his. I love Xiaomi

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  • Yaritza Miranda

    Such a nice man deserves a Led Lampen

  • Olivier Störmer

    and what version of Android are available builds of MIUI currently based on?