Former Google executive to help Xiaomi to expand outside China

Xiaomi has risen to become a top smartphone maker in China in only two years

Hugo Barra gives the I/O Keynote

Hugo Barra gives the I/O Keynote

Up-and-coming Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has hired Hugo Barra, former Google vice president for Android product management, to lead its expansion worldwide.

The hiring of Barra is a high-profile move for Xiaomi, a company that only began selling smartphones two years ago, but has since become one of the biggest names in China's tech industry.

Barra announced his departure from the U.S. search giant in a posting on his Google+ page.

"In a few weeks, I'll be joining the Xiaomi team in China to help them expand their incredible product portfolio and business globally -- as Vice President, Xiaomi Global," he wrote.

Xiaomi's CEO Lei Jun and President Lin Bin both confirmed that Barra would be joining the company in posts on Chinese Twitter-like site Sina Weibo on Thursday.

Xiaomi, which means "Little Rice" in English, has gained its popularity partly by selling high-end Android phones, but at low prices. For example, the company last month announced a phone built with a quad-core processor, 4.7-inch screen, and an 8-megapixel camera, for the low price of US$129 when bought without carrier subsidies.

At the same time, the company also uses a crowdsourcing model to encourage its customers to offer input on improving the user interface to its Android phones. This has helped the company generate word-of-mouth marketing and create loyalty among its customers, according to Xiaomi's CEO.

In this year's second quarter, shipments of Xiaomi phones surpassed Apple in China, making the company the sixth largest handset vendor in the nation, according to research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi's top management is already made up of Chinese employees who formerly worked at Google, Microsoft and Motorola, but the company's expertise has been geared toward the domestic market so far, said Teck Zhung Wong, an analyst with research firm IDC.

"Xiaomi knows the Chinese market, but when it comes to tackling the global market, I think this is where this person [Barra] will become useful," he said.

"It goes to show that Xiaomi's ambition is definitely not restricted to the Greater China market," Wong added. "It's definitely looking at ways to get into the overseas market, very likely mature markets, such as the U.S. and Europe."

The company's phones have started to sell outside of mainland China, in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But next year, Xiaomi could start expanding into five other foreign markets, its CEO said back in May.

Next week, Xiaomi is holding a major event in Beijing, where the company is expected to unveil its next flagship phone. Xiaomi has also been rumored to be developing a tablet.

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