This Chinese mobile maker could be the next Google, says Google exec who defected to Xiaomi

Hugo Barra on his defection to Xiaomi from Google: “if you’re going to lose someone… you might as well lose them to a friend.”
Hugo Barra on his defection to Xiaomi from Google: “if you’re going to lose someone… you might as well lose them to a friend.”
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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When Hugo Barra, one of Google’s top people, left the company two weeks ago for Chinese smartphone-maker Xiaomi, the timing made it look like a tangled piece of his love life was part of the reason. But now the former head of product for Google’s Android operating system is looking to quash those rumors.

In a wide-ranging interview with Kara Swisher of tech site AllThingsD, Barra said that his move to Xiaomi had been in the works for some time, and his bosses at Google have known about it since March 2013, when Sundar Pichai took over both Android and Chrome at Google. Barra says he’s moving because he thought Xiaomi, sometimes called “the Apple of China”, could one day “be as significant as Google.”

Barra does not even speak Chinese, yet he will start at Xiaomi’s Beijing headquarters in October. He might not be spending much time there, anyway, since his new job is heading up Xiaomi’s global expansion.

Xiaomi’s business is built on selling high-end Android handsets at cost, and making its profit on services attached to them, said Barra. That makes Xiaomi a lot less like Apple, in fact, and more like Amazon or Google, both of which sell hardware (Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, Google’s Nexus phones and tablets) at cost, and make the money on related services (e-books and software for Amazon, advertising for Google).

Xiaomi differentiates itself by “building hardware like it was software,” Barra told Swisher. “It’s about small teams, really scrappy, that iterate, iterate, iterate.” Not only does Xiaomi regularly release new phones, but the company also sends existing phones a new ROM (the most basic part of the operating system) every week, while most companies space these updates months apart.

Barra has been familiar with Xiaomi for a long time, ever since a former co-worker of his at Google, Bin Lin, became president of Xiaomi. With two ex-Googlers on board and the apparent blessing of Android head of design Matias Duarte—who told Barra that Xiaomi had “done the best job of anyone at extending the Android Platform”—Xiaomi appears poised to take the DNA of its larger American partner and rival, and innovate on top of it.