Yesterday, Google lost one of its top Android executives to a relatively unknown Chinese cellphone manufacturer. While the circumstances surrounding Hugo Barra’s departure are still murky and potentially dramatic, there’s no question about where he’s headed:he’s going to Xiaomi as vice president of Xiaomi global, which, according to The New York Times, some in China have dubbed the "Apple of the East."
Very few people have heard of Xiaomi outside China. It's often compared to Apple. However, it makes very thin margins on its phones, and instead is opting to make money on services - a very Google strategy. Xiaomi was actually started only three years ago by co-founder Bin Lin, who was previously a Google employee.
It shouldn't surprise you then that Xiaomi just stole Hugo Barra, a product development guru partially responsible for bringing Google's more successful Nexus branded devices (such as the hugely popular Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, as well as the Nexus 4 phone) to the market. It's a bit of a blow for Google because he's leaving just as the company needs him most. Increasingly, Android users want a more "Apple-like" experience from Google - having devices that get regular upgrades and have minimal "crap-ware" or carrier apps installed. Perhaps Xiaomi is the perfect Google-Apple hybrid company. Though their phones use Android, their custom user interface looks remarkably similar to iOS.
This story is exciting for a different reason. China is beginning to birth companies that make very competitive products for the Chinese and Western markets. How do you do that? Well, the easiest way is to employ people from the west who have experience marketing such products to customers.
If Barra is going to bring Xiaomi out of the Far East, break in to global markets, and make it a Fortune 500 company, piracy will likely be the least of his concerns. While Xiaomi has had great success in China selling unsubsidized phones directly to consumers via its website, western markets are still largely driven by in-store sales and on-contract, subsidized devices.
It's pretty exciting news. The North American market is saturated, so it will be interesting to see if Xiaomi can carve out a niche for itself. There are also few details as to why Barra left Google. Some rumors have spread that he wasn't "happy" there. Regardless of the reason, everyone in tech journalism wants to see if this results in Xiaomi phones being introduced in the West.