Another Android exec leaves Google nest as Silicon Valley romance rumors swirl

Hugo Barra (headshot 001)

It’s not often that Silicon Valley gets to mix tech with romance, but there appears to be a full-blown soap opera erupting in the executive suites at Google.

Hugo Barra, who as product manager for Android was the face of Google’s mobile software, is moving to China and smartphone maker Xiaomi.

But what’s got tongues wagging is that Barra’s departure comes amidst news that he leaves a Google romance. Google’s co-founder – who just split with his wife – is on the rebound: with a Google employee. Confused? Don’t worry, we’ll explain it all below, as well as what the product chief’s new job may mean for Android and Apple…

Barra was a bit like the Steve Jobs of Android. Not so much the creator, but the public face of the Google product, out and up front to introduce products and demonstrations.

The Apple connection doesn’t stop there. Barra formerly worked at Nuance, the speech-recognition firm Apple turned to to give Siri its voice. In addition, Barra is expected to become vice president of Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone maker led by a CEO who models himself after Jobs.

Although Google tweeted a fond farewell to its former product managing chief, Barra’s departure comes just months after Android creator Andy Rubin left. In another tweet, Xiaomi said Barra would lead its “international business development and Android strategic partnerships.”

While Xiaomi’s handsets use Android (see below), it is barely visible, covered by a thick skin customized by Chinese smartphone firms. So while Google can announce it is glad Barra will “remain in the Android ecosystem” he is just barely there.

News that Xiaomi snagged a top Android exec to lead its Android partnership negotiations only reinforces the dominant position homegrown Chinese handset makers have in the country’s smartphone market.

Xiaomi mi-2
The Android-drive Xiaomi MI-2 smartphone.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the backstory that turns the rather boring day-to-day tech conversation into something ripped from the pages of a romance novel.

According to AllThingsD, Barra resigned just before ending “a thorny personal situation” connected to his romance with another Google employee. At the same time, Google co-founder Sergey Brin has left his wife and is romancing a Google coworker.

Is there a connection?

Insiders tell the site there is none. While the romance angle is titillating, for Android the whole mess comes at the wrong time.

Hugo Barra (holds second-gen Nexus 7)

Although Google’s mobile software has numeric domination, not so certain is whether the system can turn a profit. So far, Samsung seems to be the only Android maker that’s proven there’s real money in the operating system.

Xiaomi is doing its best to erode even that in China. Now, it has the help of Android’s former chief spokesman.

Of course, all of this corporate drama is not new to Apple.

The iPhone maker went through its own shakeup in 2012. After the Apple Maps disaster, iOS head Scott Forstall was forced out, leading to the upgrade of design guru Jony Ive leading iOS and overseeing its redesign with iOS 7.