Is that Hugo Barra? He was nothing like you told me he was…

That pretty much summed up the sentiment of a few US and UK based colleagues who saw Xiaomi’s global Vice President launch the Xiaomi Mi5 at Barcelona yesterday. For, while the product presentation did go off smoothly, it had not the element of insane magic that many had heard so much about (for the record, it is true – we wrote about how Barra channeled Steve Jobs at the launch of the Mi 4i in India last year). No, this was a very efficient and organized presentation with perhaps more science than style in it – “there was more physics in this launch than in the film ‘Gravity’” one tweet went, and yes, the fact is that for slightly more than an hour yesterday, Hugo Barra sounded exactly like his designation and resume read: a tech wizard in a tech company. There were figures, statistics, scientific concepts, tech snippets, sales figures, competitor comparisons… it was a typical high profile phone launch.

hugo-barra-mi5

So why were my European and US colleagues at Barcelona just a bit, well, disappointed? This was a proper phone launch at the Mobile World Congress – efficient and polished.

Ah, well, simply because they had expected – like Dickens’ Pip in Great Expectations – much more. After all, this was Barra’s first on-stage appearance for Xiaomi in the world’s largest mobile technology event. This was the man who went from being the Nexus Man in Google to a Chinese company and is credited with making it one of the biggest brands not just in China, but in the world. The man who got crowds of fans to their feet. This was the man who many – Yours Truly included – hailed as one of the best and most innovative presenters in tech. Period.

And well, not all of those were in evidence at Barcelona yesterday. Which is what spurred my colleagues who had never seen him in the flesh to waggle their eyebrows (I could not see them as the conversations took place over mails and chats, but I could almost sense their eyebrows moving) and ask, with just a touch of skepticism: “Is that Hugo Barra?

Well, it was.
And yet, it was not.

For, to be fair, this was not a typical Xiaomi event either. As a rule, Barra likes to launch events in huge auditoria in front of a crowd that is a blend of supporters (called ‘Mi Fans’) and media persons. Like many people in the spotlight, he lives off the energy of the crowd. And it is this that brings out the passion and sentiment in the man, which morphs into onstage magic. For while Hugo Barra is a tech wizard, he is also a showman – he loves the spotlight and is very comfortable in it. For him a launch is as much entertainment as information. Hey, we are talking of the man who did a very nifty Shah Rukh Khan imitation at the MIUI 7 launch in India last year.

hugo-barra-shahrukh

The Mobile World Congress, however, comes with a far more formal setting. And I strongly suspect that this did inhibit Barra to an extent yesterday, resulting in a more ‘predictable’ tech presentation. The slides were well crafted and the attention to detail was very much in evidence, but missing in that room – and it could sensed even on YouTube – was that most human trait of them all: emotion. There were a few laughs but there was an element of constraint and imposed formality that does not sit well with Barra as a person and Xiaomi as a brand.

We were not entertained
We were informed
This was Maximus in a tuxedo in a corporate office rather than the Colosseum
This was Agassi hitting slices from the back of the court rather than topspin a yard inside the baseline
And for our Indian readers, this was Virender Sehwag playing forward defensive instead of smiting the ball into the sightscreen

What we mean is that it was not bad. But, it was not vintage Hugo Barra either. This was a person trying to be correct in an atmosphere that demanded substance rather than than style. The result: a lot of information, but not much passion. The man who normally spends several minutes talking of textures and waxing eloquent about colours, made ceramic sound like a product rather than a result of tech alchemy. Cue those “is that Hugo Barra?” questions.

Hugo Barra was on-stage at Barcelona last night. And yet, was not. We suspect we will see the real one on March 3 in Delhi when he launches the Redmi Note 3 in the Talkatora stadium. He will have his crowd and a setting that lets him be, well, himself. There will be a product, of course, but we suspect, there will also be laughter, emotion, anger, and maybe even the odd tear.

Maximus is better suited to the Colosseum, after all.


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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.