Friday, August 5, 2016

China, Not Silicon Valley, Is Cutting Edge in Mobile Tech

Snapchat and Kik, the messaging services, use bar codes that look like drunken checkerboards to connect people and share information with a snap of their smartphone cameras. Facebook is working on adding the ability to hail rides and make payments within its Messenger app. Facebook and Twitter have begun live-streaming video.

All of these developments have something in common: The technology was first popularized in China.

WeChat and Alipay, two Chinese apps, have long used the bar-codelike symbols — called QR codes — to let people pay for purchases and transfer money. Both let users hail a taxi or order a pizza without switching to another app. The video-streaming service has for years made online stars of young Chinese people posing, chatting and singing in front of video cameras at home.

Silicon Valley has long been the world’s tech capital: It birthed social networking and iPhones and spread those tech products across the globe. The rap on China has been that it always followed in the Valley’s footsteps as government censorship abetted the rise of local versions of Google, YouTube and Twitter.

But China’s tech industry — particularly its mobile businesses — has in some ways pulled ahead of the United States. Some Western tech companies, even the behemoths, are turning to Chinese firms for ideas.

“We just see China as further ahead,” said Ted Livingston, the founder of Kik, which is headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario.

The shift suggests that China could have a greater say in the global tech industry’s direction. Already in China, more people use their mobile devices to pay their bills, order services, watch videos and find dates than anywhere else in the world. Mobile payments in the country last year surpassed those in the United States. By some estimates, loans from a new breed of informal online banks called peer-to-peer lenders did too.

China’s largest internet companies are the only ones in the world that rival America’s in scale. The purchase this week of Uber China by Didi Chuxing after a protracted competition shows that at least domestically, Chinese players can take on the most sophisticated and largest start-ups coming out of America.

The future of online payments and engagements can be found at Liu Zheng’s noodle shop in central Beijing. Liu Xiu’e, 60, and her neighbor, Zhang Lixin, 55, read about the noodle shop on WeChat. Then they ordered and paid for their lunches and took and posted selfies of themselves outside the restaurant, all using the same app.

Liu Zheng, who is not related to Liu Xiu’e, said the automated ordering and payments meant he could cut down on wages for waiters. “In the future, we will only need one waiter to help in the restaurant and one to help with seating,” Mr. Liu said.

Industry leaders point to a number of areas where China jumped first. Before the online dating app Tinder, people in China used an app called Momo to flirt with nearby singles. Before the Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos discussed using drones to deliver products, Chinese media reported that a local delivery company, S.F. Express, was experimenting with the idea. WeChat offered speedier in-app news articles long before Facebook, developed a walkie-talkie function before WhatsApp, and made major use of QR codes well before Snapchat.

Before Venmo became the app for millennials to transfer money in the United States, both young and old in China were investing, reimbursing each other, paying bills,and buying products from stores with smartphone-based digital wallets.

“Quite frankly, the trope that China copies the U.S. hasn’t been true for years, and in mobile it’s the opposite: The U.S. often copies China,” said Ben Thompson, the founder of the tech research firm Stratechery. “For the Facebook Messenger app, for example, the best way to understand their road map is to look at WeChat.” (...)

China still lags in important areas. Its most powerful, high-end servers and supercomputers often rely in part on American technology. Virtual-reality start-ups trail foreign counterparts, and Google has a jump on Baidu in driverless car technology. Many of China’s products also lack the polish of their American counterparts.

The biggest advantage for China’s tech industry, according to many analysts, is that it was able to fill a vacuum after the country essentially created much of its economy from scratch following the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976. Unlike in the United States, where banks and retailers already have strong holds on customers, China’s state-run lenders are inefficient, and retailers never expanded broadly enough to serve a fast-growing middle class.

by Paul Mozer, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: An Rong Xu