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Hugo Barra: North America is in Xiaomi's pipeline - Exclusive

Hugo Barra talks about plans for Xiaomi to enter the North American market and how he would win the American consumers' minds, hearts, and souls.
June 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 HTCor 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.