Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Exclusive: In conversation with Xiaomi's Hugo Barra

Hugo Barra, Xiaomi, smartphone, interview, Broadband, data, Internet, Redmi Note
At the launch of the Redmi Note and Note 4G in Mumbai today, we sat down with Hugo Barra, President of Xiaomi Global, and discussed everything from their India strategies to their role in future wearable technologies. Below is an excerpt from the conversation:
What are the new ways that people are consuming digital technology, which is influencing the way people will use mobile devices?
It’s interesting to see what’s happening in the messaging space, for example, because video is coming back in a pretty big way. A lot if it is because of apps like SnapChat, which has a major video feature that’s taking over the world in a massive way. So all of a sudden what used to be small messages is now these huge video files, which obviously has huge bandwidth implications. The impact to data transmission that SnapChat alone has had over the past few months is absurd. Same with Instagram video. When they copied Vine and introduced video, that also created a monster new trend of micro video that never existed before; certainly not at that scale. I don’t know to what extent that trend has hit India, and it may not have, but that’s certainly going to be one of the 3G/4G use cases.
I actually do think that 4G is going to be the most important development we are going to see in any developing market over the next couple of years, because in a market like India or Indonesia, or any of the countries in Southeast Asia, so many people have not had broadband of any sort. They haven’t had broadband at home or at office; they’ve not had it, period. So it’ll now be the first time they experience it. The consumption of video content, relative to what it could be, is still very very small in India despite the fact that YouTube is hugely popular here. It is popular among the top segment of the social pyramid. But imagine the impact that mobile video--even YouTube alone--can have. It’s tremendous. Though this is not necessarily a hardware/software trend, it is an evolution that will influence major use cases. The thing about 4G in a developing market like India is that it is going to affect everything. The biggest problem with 3G, especially how it’s been implemented in India, is that it’s just so slow, to start. So if you go to a website, it takes 10 seconds for the damn thing to load.
It’s like if you’re in the US and on Verizon’s LTE network, you don’t want to leave because it’s so good. It’s so fast! Assuming you’re in a good coverage area of course. It’s better than WiFi because they have the most amazing backbone; being right there. Their network is plugged into the backbone of the Internet. It’s extraordinary, and I don’t think people understand what it is, because they’ve never tried it. No one in India, other than people who have connectivity in very premium offices in Delhi for example--which is where the Internet comes in--no one has experienced such fast broadband.
Given this 4G trend, we were very keen to be part of it at the very beginning. We laid out a challenge to our team to bring out a 4G smartphone, and we wanted to do it this year, and for under Rs. 10,000. We’re very happy we have.
What do you think of human interface technologies and how things like speech recognition and biometrics will influence future mobile and wearable products?
That’s an interesting challenge. I’ll have to say it is the ‘home’ user interface and the ‘car’ user interface that are still not yet quite there. There really are no good examples of these interfaces that are easy to use and functional. Then when it comes to things like voice, it is not so much voice recognition as it is natural language processing that needs to develop. In this area, context is all important. For example, if you were driving at speed on an open road with a little traffic, the context for the interface to respond would be completely different compared to driving on a more crowded street with dense traffic. It’s a question of response time and the ability to instantly react correctly to a user’s request.
Natural language processing is a tricky thing, and it still needs to evolve to a point where it is reliable and useable. Take Siri for example. Apple has spoiled it for the rest of the field because of the pre-created responses that attempt to sound like natural language responses. The moment you continue the conversation, it falls flat and it gets really frustrating.
Finally, tell us a bit more about Mi's 'sell at cost' strategy. How DO you manage to keep those prices so low?
[Smiles] It’s a combination of several things. It’s about optimising all parts of the supply and fulfilment chain. Whether it comes to working with the right suppliers, to optimising manufacturing processes, to delivering, we really play it to the bone. We’ve always believed in the power of word-of-mouth, and are committed in bringing the best technology to our fans at the lowest price points.