Just a couple hours ago, we heard that Hugo Barra
was going to be stepping down as Google's vice president of Android product management in order to take a position with Xiaomi. Now, we're getting a clearer picture of what this is all about, because Barra has posted to his Google+ that he is leaving Google to become the VP of Xiaomi Global.
In his Google+ post, Barra said:
Barra went on to thank the top members of the Android team including Andy Rubin, Sundar Pichai, and Vic Gundotra. Sundar Pichai also took to Google+ to wish Barra luck, and of course Sundar added "we're thrilled that he's sticking with Android." Xiaomi's president, Lin Bin, and co-founder, Lei Jun, have both taken to Weibo to welcome Barra to the fold, saying that he will start at the beginning of October, which is slightly later than the "in a few weeks" that Barra said.
The really interesting part of this whole move is from the perspective of Xiaomi. Xiaomi hasn't made a move to grow beyond China yet, but obviously the addition of now ex-Googler Hugo Barra as the VP of Xiaomi Global shows where the company is aiming. As we mentioned when we
first heard this news, Xiaomi is one of the fastest growing manufacturers
in China, and has recently surpassed Apple's sales in the country.
Xiaomi is often called the "Apple of China", because of its hardware design, and because the skin that it puts onto Android does look quite a bit like iOS. But the truth, according to Lei Jun, is that "Xiaomi looks a bit like Apple but is really more like Amazon with some elements of Google." It is huge within China and has garnered a reputation of creating great high-end devices that really shine because of the software that the company adds on top of Android. But, it hasn't been the quality that has spurred the growth of the company, it is more because of a business model more similar to Amazon, or the Google Nexus line.
Xiaomi has gained so much market share in China because it routinely undercuts the competition at the expense of its profit margins, because it expects that it can make up the difference with its online shopping and games services. That sounds a lot more like Amazon than anyone else. The question remains as to what we should expect from Xiaomi when it does make a move outside of China.
Xiaomi and Google
We have already seen that Xiaomi knows how to attract spec enthusiasts
, so the biggest question will be in whether Xiaomi will go with Google Android for its handsets, or if it will try to fork Android as Amazon has. With Barra in the mix, we'd expect that he would push for Google services, but Xiaomi has developed its own app store which includes both apps and themes for its devices.
Of course, looking at a Xiaomi device as we mentioned, it will look quite a bit like iOS, and that is because before Xiaomi started manufacturing handsets, the company developed the MIUI custom ROM
for Android. MIUI has grown over the years, and Xiaomi is now on v5 of the software, which is still available for download if you are looking for a custom ROM for your device, and MIUI is still the preloaded user experience on all Xiaomi devices along with the MIUI App Store. Interestingly, the MIUI Store even includes an app that will allow you to easily install Google apps like Gmail, Maps, Chrome, and even the Google Play Store.
No doubt, this is something that Google does not look positively upon, so it will be interesting to see if Xiaomi tries to keep its own app store going when it makes a move into international markets, or if it will forego the app revenue in favor of more easy acceptance in regions where the Google Play Store is more established. From a quick look through the MIUI Store, there are a lot of well known apps in the store, although it is unclear if those apps were officially submitted to that store or not.
We would guess that Barra will try to push for Google Apps adoption, but that could mean a lot of work to pull MIUI back from being a custom ROM to being more of a custom UI on top of Google Android. Of course, sticking with a fork of Android poses its own troubles, because making a fork successful is a very difficult thing to do. As yet, only Amazon has been able to make it work. But, with a fully stocked app store (assuming the apps can be translated to different languages), Xiaomi has a good start.
If nothing else, this is going to be a very interesting transition to watch. Xiaomi has a big name in China, and those in the custom ROM community can attest to the fact that the Xiaomi software (MIUI) is quality software (if you like the very iOS-like feel to it). There are still a lot of questions surrounding the company and its plans, and we certainly don't expect them to be answered soon. But, the addition of ex-Googler Hugo Barra does add some much needed international legitimacy to Xiaomi, and it makes the company one to watch.