Sun, Aug 07, 2016 - Page 15 News List

China, not Silicon Valley,
is cutting edge in mobile tech

China’s large Internet firms not only rival the US’ in scale, but draw most of their revenue not from ads, but from spending on games, services and goods sold on innovative apps

By Paul Mozur  /  NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

People record a water fountain show with their mobile phones in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, on May 1.

Photo: Reuters

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 (微信) and Alipay (支付寶), two Chinese apps, have long used the bar-code-like 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.

However, China’s tech industry — particularly its mobile businesses — has in some ways pulled ahead of the US. 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 US. 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 the US’ in scale. The purchase this week of Uber China by Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行) after a protracted competition shows that at least domestically, Chinese players can take on the most sophisticated and largest startups coming out of the US.

The future of online payments and engagements can be found at Liu Zheng’s (劉正) noodle shop in central Beijing. Liu Xiu’e (劉秀娥), 60, and her neighbor, Zhang Lixin (張立新), 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,” he 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 (陌陌) to flirt with nearby singles.

Before Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos discussed using drones to deliver products, Chinese media reported that a local delivery company, S.F. Express (順豐快遞), 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.

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