Whatever Happened to MIUI?

MIUI Artwork

Back in the dark days of Gingerbread, MIUI was a bright light in Android design — a custom ROM that offered insane theming and unexpected security features, all wrapped up in an interface that was beautifully, unapologetically, a lot like iOS.

MIUI is still around, of course. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but it just doesn’t seem to get as much press as it once did. It’s certainly harder to find; my girlfriend is a fan and wanted it installed on her new/my old 2012 Nexus 7, but from three available sources I could find only a single ROM for it — one that, inexplicably, comes with phone and SMS apps… for a WiFi tablet.

Things seemed to be a lot better for MIUI a year and a half ago, when yours truly was happily running it on his Nexus S.

If it’s indeed true that MIUI has faded into the background for the Android modding community, what happened, exactly? I’ve a few theories on that.

Fragmentation Happened

As I wrote above, there are at least three available sources for MIUI:

  1. MIUI.com
  2. MIUIAndroid.com
  3. MIUI.us

The first is the official Chinese site. Parts of it are in English; other critical parts, like the ROM download page, are not. I got the official MIUI build for the old Nexus 7 by scrolling through the pretty pictures of devices.

The second and third are the U.K. and U.S. MIUI community sites. While it’s great that there are two options for English-speaking users, the version numbers of MIUI on each don’t match up. And device support is not consistent — the Nexus 4, for example, has no available ROM on the U.S. site.

Things are further confused by MIUI not listing MIUI.us at all on their unofficial downloads page. This may or may not be because the U.S. site got hacked last month; whatever the reason, it only adds to the confusion for potential users.

Holo Happened

When Ice Cream Sandwich was launched on the Galaxy Nexus in late 2011 it marked a big change for Android design. The Holo interface instantly made Android much nicer to look at.

MIUI has also had a major revision, from v4 to v5. But the changes, at least visually, are much more subtle.

Then there are the technical issues brought on by Android 4.2, which introduced support for multiple users on tablets. I’d have to write a separate post to explain this properly, but here’s why it’s important: while other ROMs are already supporting Android 4.3 MIUI is still built on Android 4.1, and downgrading from 4.3 to 4.1 is problematic to say the least.

China Happened

This is pure speculation on my part, but with Xiaomi now a big enough deal in their home market that they can snatch execs from Google I somehow don’t think they’re as interested in we western folk as they once were.

I can offer only two pieces of evidence to support this claim: (1) MIUI for the Nexus 7 doesn’t seem to play well with the flashable Google apps that work on every other ROM, and (2) many of the custom themes available as downloads within MIUI are no longer free.

So if you’re a MIUI user, am I way off base here? Is there some other piece of the picture that I’m missing? And if you’re not a MIUI user, have I scared you off forever? That’d be a shame, because Xiaomi’s unique take on Android is certainly worth trying out…