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Originally published August 29, 2013 at 5:52 PM | Page modified August 30, 2013 at 1:52 PM

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Chinese smartphone maker hires Google executive

China smartphone maker Xiaomi said it had hired Google Android executive Hugo Barra to lead the growing tech company’s international expansion plans.

The New York Times

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TOKYO — In a sign of the rising export ambitions of the Chinese mobile-phone industry, a smartphone maker called Xiaomi said Thursday it had hired a top executive away from Google to lead its international expansion plans.

The executive, Hugo Barra, is one of the most prominent Westerners to join a Chinese technology company, analysts said. At Google, he has served as vice president for Google’s Android mobile operating system, which is used by the vast majority of smartphones in China.

“He’s a significant figure in the industry, a significant figure at Google,” said Pete Cunningham, an analyst at Canalys, a research firm. “It underlines the trend we’re seeing in the market. The Chinese vendors are going to play a big part in shaping the future of the industry.”

Technology news site AllThingsD said sources told it Barra’s ex-girlfriend at Google is the same woman with whom Google co-founder Sergey Brin now has a relationship. She was cited in Wednesday’s report that Brin and wife Ann Wojcicki have split up after six years.

The site said Thursday that Barra decided to take the new job before knowing about that relationship and that his departure is unrelated.

Xiaomi is one of a number of Chinese smartphone makers that have been gaining market share in China against foreign rivals like Apple and Nokia. Until recently, these Chinese companies seemed happy with their rising sales in China, the biggest smartphone market, but now companies like Xiaomi, Lenovo and Huawei seem intent on expanding internationally.

Xiaomi controlled 5 percent of the smartphone market in China in the second quarter, according to Canalys. That put it well behind the leader, Samsung Electronics of South Korea, which had an 18 percent share, but slightly ahead of Apple, with 4.8 percent.

Despite selling mostly in the domestic market, Chinese smartphone brands already account for about one-fifth of sales worldwide, according to Canalys. Including smartphones made in Chinese factories for foreign brands like Apple, Chinese production accounts for a majority of global sales.

Barra said in a statement posted on Google Plus that he intended to help Xiaomi “expand their incredible product portfolio and business globally.”

“I’m really looking forward to this new challenge, and am particularly excited about the opportunity to continue to help drive the Android ecosystem,” he wrote.

A main selling point for Chinese smartphones has been price. Xiaomi sells phones for about $180 to $300, according to Counterpoint Technology Market Research. That is less than half the price of high-end phones from Samsung or Apple, though slightly higher than comparably equipped devices from many other Chinese brands.

“The phones are not necessarily superior, but they have created a lot of buzz,” said Tom Kang, an analyst at Counterpoint. “They’ve realized that the differentiation you can do now with hardware or software is very marginal, and that the future will be about marketing.”

The chief executive of Xiaomi, Lei Jun, has taken a page from the marketing playbook of Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, organizing flashy, onstage product introductions at which he appears in jeans and black shirts.

Lei welcomed Barra to China in a microblog posting in which he wrote: “Hugo Barra will indeed join Xiaomi in early October, and he’ll take charge of expanding international business.”

While Xiaomi phones bear physical resemblances to iPhones, they are different in at least one significant way: they run on a customized version of Android. Though Google withdrew much of its business from mainland China three years ago, its Android software is used on more than 90 percent of smartphones in the country.

Xiaomi recently upgraded its sales forecast, saying it aimed to sell 20 million smartphones this year, up from a previous estimate of 15 million. Lei said this month the company had raised new financing from outside investors in a deal that gave Xiaomi a valuation of $10 billion.

“We wish Hugo Barra the best,” Google said in a statement. “We’ll miss him at Google and we’re excited that he is staying within the Android ecosystem.”

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