Android executive leaves Google for Chinese firm

August 29, 2013

There’s been a little shakeup in the smartphone industry this week, with the announced departure of Hugo Barra, one of the team leaders for Google’s Android mobile operating system.

Barra said Wednesday that he was leaving the tech titan after more than five years to join Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. Barra made the announcement in a post on Google+, and the news was reported by All Things Digital.

Barra, the vice president of product management for Android, had been one of the most visible members of Google’s Android team, appearing at public events to present major Android devices such as Google’s Nexus 7 tablet. His new position as vice president of Xiaomi Global won’t take him too far out of the Google ecosystem — the firm makes Android-based phones. Xiaomi (pronounced Sheow-mee) touts high-end hardware and software enhancements to Google’s base operating system.

The company has been gaining ground in the Chinese smartphone market, where locally based companies such as Lenovo and Huawei are giving industry giants such as Apple and Samsung a run for their money. Xiaomi has a 5 percent market share in China, compared with Apple’s 4.8 percent, according to a report from industry research firm Canalys. Samsung leads with 17.6 percent of the market, the report said.

Despite the high-profile resignation, Google’s stock ticked up Thursday by 0.8 percent.

All Things Digital, quoting anonymous sources, also reported that Barra’s departure came before he found out that a Google employee he had once dated was now in a relationship with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who in turn has separated from his wife.

Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick declined to comment on Barra’s resignation. But she pointed to the Google+ page of Sundar Pichai, the head of Google’s Android and Chrome division, who wished Barra well.

“We’ll miss him at Google but we’re thrilled that he’s sticking with Android,” Pichai wrote.

Xiaomi is little known outside of China, but it’s one of the country’s fastest-rising tech companies.

Google and Chinese smartphone makers such as Xiaomi have a complex relationship. Cheaper devices running Android are extremely popular in China, but that success hasn’t necessarily translated into revenue for Google. Many of the phones are stripped of Google apps and services, including its search engine. This has created an odd quandary for Google: by giving away its mobile platform for free, Android now dominates in China. But Google also has less control over what’s on the phones, losing precious opportunities to make money from the exploding population of mobile users in China.

With an Android executive joining the ranks, Xiaomi gains someone with experience running the free platform that has powered its rise. It also may signal that Xiaomi — which means “little rice” in Chinese — is not content being a company that’s only popular in China.

Staff writer Jia Lynn Yang contributed to this report.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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