Xiaomi's global VP Hugo Barra says designing around current products is 'stupid'

In response to claims that the new Mi 4 copied the iPhone, Barra called out a "flawed" patent system for hindering innovation in the market.

Aloysius Low Senior Editor
Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.
Aloysius Low
3 min read

Xiaomi's Hugo Barra posing for a picture at his office at the Xiaomi HQ. Aloysius Low/CNET

BEIJING -- In the wake of accusations of Xiaomi's "copying" Apple's designs, Xiaomi's Global VP and former Android VP Hugo Barra vigorously defended the Chinese company, calling the statements "sensational and sweeping".

He said as much at a group interview at the Xiaomi HQ in Beijing, explaining the key cultural differences in China compared with how the market works in the west.

When asked about the use of the iPhone for comparison with the new Mi 4 at Xiaomi's keynote, Barra pointed out it's very much like the Chinese to compare a product to what is deemed the best in the market. He further added that that the new Xiaomi Mi 4 was "inspired" by Apple's talented designers, but he denied that the company was copying Apple specifically.

Aloysius Low/CNET

It's a decidedly controversial approach in the west, but in China, most companies tend to treat this as the highest compliment someone can pay you -- your product is good enough to be copied.

That said, that isn't what Xiaomi is doing. Barra passionately argues that instead of trying to design around a product, it's actually a much better idea to improve the design instead.

"Design-arounds are stupid. Why would you design around something that's good, rather than making it better? The industry wastes so much time and energy doing design-arounds," he said.

"The world has to change -- the patent system is completely flawed... We're not afraid to stand up and say that."

Barra further elaborated on the concept, saying it hinders and stops innovation, and it's a waste to have a group of engineers try to come up with a way to do something different to avoid infringing a patent, instead of the group using their time and energy to make the existing design better.

"The next set of engineers that come after that can make it even better, and at the end of the day, everyone wins."

Interestingly, this ties in with comments from an earlier interview with Barra, where he said that two similarly skilled designers would reach the same conclusions. He also said that Xiaomi wouldn't shy away from a good idea just because someone had already done it.

"Innovation is a process of iteration. There are no new ideas, there are improvements over ideas all the time. The approach we're taking with everything that we do is we're trying to exceed user expectations."

While this concept may hold water in the east, where this is more or less the norm, Xiaomi may have a harder time in the west, where Apple's lawyers may not be as accepting.

Given that the western market isn't in the pipeline for now -- Barra said that the company is looking towards Indonesia, Russia and Brazil next -- this may not be a problem for Xiaomi just yet.

Moving forward, Xiaomi will have a lot of work to do to shed its copycat image. It's not an easy road given yet another accusation from Daring Fireball's Josh Gruber (Barra says it's a "stupid mistake" from a junior designer who cut corners), hopefully Xiaomi will be able to win over users based on the quality of its affordable handsets.