It was July 2013 and Google threw a surprise event to announce the successor of its 7-inch tablet, Nexus 7. On the stage was Android VP Hugo Barra talking about the new product. Few knew at the time that he would be moving to a Chinese company very soon and change its fortunes.
Recently, Barra announced that he will be stepping down as the Global VP at Xiaomi to move back to the US and join a new venture. Barra's exit is a big development for Xiaomi, the company he joined in 2013. In the years since, he had virtually become the face of Xiaomi.
Since his Google days, Barra has been a great presenter with a charismatic stage presence. As the Android VP, he oversaw launches of Google's most successful devices. Namely, the Google Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. Android Jelly Bean and KitKat, both launched by him, are still used in many devices.
Joining Xiaomi, Barra brought to the table a great knowledge of smartphone ergonomics and economy. Still in its early years at the time, Xiaomi was then known as a Chinese startup trying to be an Apple copycat. Plenty of jibes were exchanged by both sides. Jony Ive of Apple accused Xiaomi of design theft while Hugo Barra accused Apple of stealing ideas from HTC.
Both companies moved on, but Xiaomi was on the fast track. Barra began to bring products out of China to the global market. Xiaomi's flagship smartphone, the Mi 3 was launched in different countries while that Mi 4 expanded to many more markets. The Mi 5 was counted among the better smartphones of 2016.
The former Google man also pushed other, more pocket friendly, smartphone series in the budget range such as the Mi Note, Redmi, Redmi Note and Mi Pad. He was Xiaomi's face for the world. Few outside China know much about Xiaomi founder and CEO, LeI Jun. For them Barra was Xiaomi.
One of his biggest successes has been in India, where Xiaomi did tremendously well in 2016, crossing the $1 billion revenue mark. Xiaomi also made it to India's top 5 smartphone shipment list for 2016. His engaging launches aside, his product push to India will be missed. While Manu Jain has done a great job as Xiaomi's India head, many decisions must have been taken by the company's global team and it would be interesting to see what the product roadmap is going to look like from now on.
Xiang Wang, Xiaomi's Senior Vice President, is going to replace Barra at the global level. One of his key challenges would be declining smartphones sales in China. For the first time in recent years, Xiaomi slipped out of the top 5 list of smartphone sellers in China in 2016. The Nokia comeback could pose a threat to many smartphone makers. Its new smartphone, the Nokia 6, has been an instant hit, with the first 100,000 units getting sold in just under a minute.
Then there is India's growing appetite for Xiaomi products, and the company could explore the US, with its saturated smartphone market, for smart home products. Wang being a former Qualcomm man, there is no doubting his pulse on the smartphone market but his on stage persona is virtually unknown. Xiaomi will doubtless face steep challenges in the market with Barra's exit.