Lin originally worked at Microsoft and later joined Google, serving as China's counterpart to Andy Rubin in Mountain View, Calif. Jiangji Huang was at Microsoft China.
Guangping Zhou led Motorola's R&D team in China. Originally an RF engineer, he brought to Xiaomi a team of 20 engineers from among his Motorola colleagues.
Hong Feng led the Google China team before joining Xiaomi. The most recent addition, Hugo Barra, was Google's vice president of Android product management.
Jun Lei, Xiaomi's founder (in the center in red T-shirt), and seven co-founders.
Xiaomi, which means "little rice" in Chinese, was founded in April 2010. As Lin tells the story, it was a concoction of ideas and passion for the mobile Internet and Android, shared by two men: Jun Lei, China's best-known billionaire serial entrepreneur, and Lin, former engineering director of Google Global.
When Lin was still at Google, Lei was an angel investor for UCWEB, a mobile web browser company. He had pulled off a number of successful startups, including taking King Software to its initial public offering.
When business partners Lei and Lin talked to each other, the conversation tended to dwell on Android and the mobile Internet. "We shared a lot of passion together," Lin said. "We often got together at 8 o'clock on a weekend night, brainstormed our ideas, and we never stopped talking until three in the morning."
Both men harbored the idea of a new business to leverage the booming mobile Internet and e-commerce market in China, but Lin didn't decide to leave Google and work with Lei until Jan. 12, 2010 -- the day Google decided to pull out of China.
"I arrived in San Francisco the day before that announcement. Andy Rubin canceled our meeting. That had never happened before. I had no idea what was coming," Lin said. "Although it was the right decision by Google, it was a huge surprise for me, and I got pretty emotional. I had 300-400 people working in R&D at Google in Beijing, and there were more people working in the operation in China. None of them had any idea that it was coming."
When Lei and Lin founded Xiaomi in 2010, their first project was to develop a user interface called MIUI. The goal was to build a better, innovative UI on top of Android.
MIUI is 100% compatible with Android, Lin said. "There are no disconnects." But by knowing Android inside out, and knowing that Linux is at its core, "we designed a UI that's compatible with Android but more innovative -- on top of Android. With MIUI, we have full control of every line of code."
The interface allows Xiaomi to extend features of Android, allowing different "themes" -- developed by third parties and sold at Xiaomi's Theme Store -- to do things like take over the smartphone's desktop. If you choose the Angry Bird theme, characters from the Angry Birds game take over your mobile screen, and you can those icons to control phone functions.
In the Angry Birds theme, characters from that game take over the screen and provide all the icons.
In essence, Xiaomi has rebuilt Android, opened up the framework, and published an SDK that allows different themes to be designed by third-party developers.
Xiaomi's project to design its first smartphone didn't start until June 2010 -- three months after the company was founded. The task initially looked herculean, because the first five co-founders knew software code but nothing about hardware. It had to wait for Zhou, who had already left Motorola, to join Xiaomi.
When Xioami was getting established, Zhou was involved in a brand new smartphone project at another company. But that project fell through, and Zhou brought to Xioami his RF knowledge, more than 15 years of experience in designing hardware at Motorola, and a team of 20 ex-Motorola engineers orphaned by that defunct smartphone project.
In the next installment, we will discuss Xiaomi's struggle to become a smartphone vendor, the challenges ahead as the company expands beyond China, and the need to find a balance in keeping a good relationship with Google.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times