“We are looking to hire people with core Android experience”
Before Xiaomi was to enter the Indian market, many assumed that this was just another Chinese smartphone coming their way. But perceptions changed after the brand entered the sub-continent. Flipkart
got bombarded with orders and Xiaomi eventually could not meet the Indian demand. There are quite a few reasons for this explosive
demand, but one of the most important factors is the unique user experience that the device offers. It
runs on Android, but on a different version–one that originates from the
brain of Hugo Barra, vice president,
Xiaomi. When he was at Google, he was pretty much instrumental in making the Android OS what it is. Currently, he is focused on
offering a different taste of it at a unique price point. He has launched MIUI, an Android-based
OS that he wants to be ported to devices other than Xiaomi. For this,
he needs a lot of help from the developers’ community. Diksha P
Gupta from Open Source For You caught up with him to discuss his plans for India and how he wants
to contribute to and leverage the developers’ ecosystem in the
country. Read on...
are the top features of Xiaomi MIUI that you think are lacking in other devices? First of all, we have a dramatically simplified UI for the average person; so it feels simpler than anything else in the market right now.
Second, it is very customisable and is really appealing to our customers. We have thousands of themes that can completely change the experience, not just the wall paper or the lock screen. From very detailed to very minimalistic designs, from cartoonist styles to cultural statements and on to other things, there is a huge list of options to choose from.
Third, I would say that there’s customisation for power users as well. You can change a lot of things in the system. You can control permissions on apps, and you can decide which apps are allowed to run in the background. There is a lot you can do to fine tune the performance of your device if you choose to. For example, you can decide which apps are allowed to access the 3G network. So I can say that out of the 45 apps that I have running on my phone, the only ones that are allowed to use 3G are WhatsApp, Hike, my email and my browser. I don’t want any of the other apps that are running on this phone to be allowed to access 3G at all, which I won’t know about and which may use bandwidth that I am paying for. It is a very simple menu. Like checkboxes, it lets you choose the apps that you want to allow 3G access to. So if you care about how much bandwidth you are consuming and presently control that by turning 3G on and off (which people do all the time), now you can allow 3G access only to messaging apps like WhatsApp or Hike that use almost no bandwidth at all. Those are the apps that you’re all the time connected to because if someone sends you a message, you want to get it as soon as possible.
Fourth, we have added a number of features to the core apps that make them more interesting. These include in– call features that allow users to take notes during a phone call, the ability to record a phone call and a bunch of other things. So it is not the dialler app alone, but also dozens of features all around the OS like turning on the flash light from the lock screen, having a private messaging inbox and a whole lot of other features.
Fifth, on your text inbox, you can pin a person to the top—if there is really someone who matters to you and you always want to have their messages on the top. You can decide at what time an SMS needs to be sent out. You can compose a message saying, “I want this message to go out at 7 p.m.,” because maybe you’re going to be asleep, for example, but still want that message to go out.
Then there are little things like, if you fire up the camera app and point the camera towards the QR code, it just automatically recognises it. You don’t have to download a special app just to recognise the QR codes. If you are connected to a Wi-Fi network with your Mi phone, you may want to share this Wi-Fi network with someone else. So, you just go into the Wi-Fi wing and say, “Share this connection,” and the phone will then share a QR code. The person you want to share your Wi-Fi connection with can just scan this QR code and immediately get connected to the network without having to enter a password. So lots and lots of little things like that add up to a pretty delightful experience. QAfter
MIUI from Xiaomi, Panasonic has launched its own UI and Xolo has launched HIVE. So do you think the war has now shifted to the UI level? I think it would be an injustice to say that our operating system MIUI is just another UI like Android because it is so much more than that. We have had a team of 500 engineers working on our operating systems for the last four years, so it is not just a re-skinning of Android. It is much, much more significant effort. I can spend five hours with you just explaining the features of MIUI. I don’t think there are many companies out there that have as significant a software effort that has been on for as long a time, as we have. So while I haven’t looked at these operating systems that you are talking about closely, my instinct is that they are not as profoundly different and well founded as MIUI. QWhat
are your plans to reach out to the developers? From a development perspective, first and foremost, we are very Android compliant. All of our builds, before OTA, go to Google for approval, like every other OEM out there. We are focused on Android APIs. We are not building new APIs. We believe that doing so would create fragmentation. It’s kind of not ideal and goes against the ecosystem. So, from our point of view, we see developers as our early adopters. They are the people who we think are best equipped to try our products. We see developers as the first people that we take our devices to try out. That’s primarily how we view the developer community.
There are some interesting twists out there as well. For instance, we are the first company to make a Tegra K1 tablet. So, already, MiPad is being used by game developers as the reference development platform for K1 game tabs. This is one of the few ways in which we get in touch with the developers and work with them. QHow
do you want to involve the Indian developer community, considering the fact that it is one of the largest in the world? First of all, we are looking to hire developers here. We are looking to build a software engineering team in India, and in Bengaluru, to be precise—where we are headquartered. So that is the first and the most important step for us. The second angle is MIUI. It’s not an open source operating system, but it is an open operating system that is based on Android. A lot of the actual code is closed, but it’s open
and is configurable. A really interesting initiative with the developer community, where we would love to get some help with, is porting MIUI to all of the local devices. If someone with a Micromax or a Karbonn device wants to run MIUI on it, let them do it. So, we would like the help of the developer community for things like that.
We do have some developers in the country porting our builds on different devices. So, that’s something we would love the developer community to help us with. QWhat
would be the size of the engineering team and by when can we expect that team to come up? We will start hiring people pretty much right away. As for the size, I don’t know yet. I suspect that we would only be limited by our ability to hire quickly, as we need a really high count of engineers. The Bengaluru tech talent scene is incredibly competitive, and there is a shortage of talented people. So we will be working hard to recruit as fast as we can but I don’t think we will be limited by any particular quota or budget—it’s how quickly we can take this up. QWhat
kind of developers are you looking to hire in India? Mainly, Android developers. We are looking to hire people with core Android experience—software engineers who have written code below the application level. Java developers and Android developers are totally fine. QYou
are originally from Android, but you chose to do something that is not open source, but closed-source. Any reasons for this choice? This is something the company has thought about a lot. Managing an open source project is a very different thing, from what we do today. So we thought that what we would rather do is contribute back. So, while our core UI is not open, we actually contribute a lot back, not only to Android, but to other initiatives as well. HBASE is one database initiative for which our team is the No. 1 contributor. QWhat
are your thoughts on the Android One platform? I think it’s a phenomenal effort from Google. It’s a very clever program. It is designed to empower members of the ecosystem, who you might label as challengers, and to help them reap real incentives. So I think it is a very, very cleverly designed program. I am very excited to see it taking off in India. QIs
it true that Xiaomi provides weekly updates for its devices? We provide weekly updates for our Mi device family. We have two families – the Redmi family and the Mi family. We provide weekly updates for the devices of the Mi family on what we call the beta channel. So when you buy a Mi 3, for example, it’s on what we call the stable channel, which gets updates every one or two months. But if you want to be on the beta channel and get updates every week, to be the one to try out features first, all you have to do is go to the MIUI forum and download the beta channel ROM to flash it to your device. It is a very simple thing to do, and then you are on the beta channel and will get weekly updates. QSo
what is the idea behind such weekly updates? Are they not too frequent for even power users to adopt? The power users take them all the time. Their take rate is incredibly high. These are people who have chosen to take these over-the-air updates. They have actively said: “I want to be on the beta channel because I want weekly updates.” And the reason they do it is because they want to get access to features early, they want to provide feedback, they like having the latest and greatest software on their devices. They want to participate and that is why people want to join in. QGoogle
promotes stock Android usage. You also did the same when you were with Google, so forking Android is not happily accepted by Google. Given that, where do you see Android reaching eventually in this game? From Google’s perspective and from my perspective as well, the most important thing in the Android ecosystem is for the devices to remain compatible. To me, the two most important things are: first, every Android device must be 100 per cent compatible, and second, all of Google’s innovations must reach every Android user. In the approach that we have taken as an OS developer, we are checking both these boxes one hundred per cent.
Our devices, even those selling in China, without any of Google’s apps, are 100 per cent compatible and have always been so, which means that all of the Android APIs work perfectly. They pass all the compatibility apps, which means that you will never have apps crashing. Second, because we are pre-loading all of Google’s apps (outside of China of course, where we are allowed to preload Google’s apps), we are enabling all of the innovation that Google has to reach every MIUI user. So we are checking all the boxes.
I think you need to be careful when using the word ‘ forking’ because you may be confusing yourself and your users with forks that are not compatible— forks that break away from the Android ecosystem, if you will. I’m not going to mention names but that is unhealthy for the ecosystem. That is almost a sin, because it is going to lead to user frustration at some point, sooner or later. Apps are going to start crashing or not working. That is a bad thing to do. It’s just not a good idea and obviously we will not do that. We are 100 per cent Android compatible, we are 100 per cent behind Android, and we love what the Android teams do.
Hugo Barra, vice president, Xiaomi