Ex-Googler Hugo Barra gushes over Chinese Xiaomi's fanboys

Barra praised the smartphone manufacturer's user-focused design at a recent event in San Francisco

Xiaomi's Hugo Barra and Lei Jun sit down with AllThingsD's Kara Swisher at the GMIC conference in San Francisco on Oct. 22, 2013.

Xiaomi's Hugo Barra and Lei Jun sit down with AllThingsD's Kara Swisher at the GMIC conference in San Francisco on Oct. 22, 2013.

Ex-Googler Hugo Barra has a thing for the fans -- but not Google's.

While the Internet data behemoth may strive to "do no evil," "we do everything for the 'Mi fens,'" Barra said Tuesday, speaking of Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi's loyal users. Mi fen is shorthand for "Xiaomi fan," and also means "rice flower."

"They come first, they're our priority," he said, speaking during the GMIC mobile Internet conference in San Francisco.

At the event, Barra delivered candid remarks in one of his first public appearances since news broke of his departure as Google's high-ranking vice president of Android. Now he's VP for Xiaomi Global, and is responsible for leading the Chinese company's international expansion efforts.

In Barra's comments, Google seemed to be a thing of the past, and he spoke like one of the Xiaomi crew. So what's Xiaomi got that Google doesn't? A mentality that strongly incorporates user feedback throughout the product development process, he said.

"No one takes user feedback anywhere near as seriously as Xiaomi does," Barra said. "A significant number of product features come from user suggestions," he said.

Xiaomi has a different way of marketing its products. Instead of shipping them out on a massive scale like Apple would for the next iPhone or iPad, Xiaomi has a more iterative process, maybe making only 1,000 phones available at a time. The company does this so it can gather precious feedback from users each step of the way, Barra said, and quickly incorporate their reactions into the next build, maybe as soon as a week later.

Xiaomi, and now Barra, like to call the process "design as you build." It's a concept that already plays out in software development, but not as much in hardware.

"It's a beautiful cycle that Silicon Valley has become known for," Barra said, but what Xiaomi has created is a company doing that for hardware.

Barra said he had been eyeing Xiaomi since its inception three years ago, when asked by AllThingsD's Kara Swisher about why he left Google, during an on-stage chat at GMIC.

Since his departure questions have swirled over the real reasons why he left, partly because it happened amid reports of a love triangle involving Google co-founder Sergey Brin and a female Google employee.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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