Copying? Yeah, about that…

It’s a two-way street, according to a prominent Silicon Valley VC firm:

Chinese technology companies have long had a reputation of being copycats of Western peers, but U.S. companies have recently begun to return the favor, said a partner at prominent venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. China’s internet titans such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. are influencing U.S. startups and majors alike, and many Chinese models are being replicated in the U.S., said Connie Chan, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture firm whose investments include Airbnb Inc. and Facebook Inc. LimeBike, a San Mateo, Calif., upstart backed by Andreessen Horowitz, adapted China’s dockless bike-sharing model for U.S. consumers, Ms. Chan said at The Wall Street Journal’s D. Live Asia conference Friday. The company’s smartphone-activated bicycles, which use designated public spaces for parking instead of docking stations, were first rolled out by Beijing-based Ofo Inc. and Beijing Mobike Technology Co. Also, Apple Inc. recently added payment services to its iMessage chat service, taking a page from Tencent’s playbook, Ms. Chan said.

The article does not provide more specifics on how “China’s internet titans such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. are influencing U.S. startups and majors alike, and many Chinese models are being replicated in the U.S.,” but Chan might have been talking about things like this:

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.

Ok, not really.

  • QR codes (barcodes you scan with your phone) were invented in Japan and first popularized there in the early 2000s, way before China.
  • Taxi-hailing apps have been around in the US and Europe since at least 2009. Didi Dache (the leading Chinese equivalent) was founded in 2012. Were there others in China before that? In any case, Uber was established enough in the US to start its international expansion in 2011, before Didi Dache even existed.
  • Compare:
    1. “Indeed, in Japan and in Finland people already buy goods via their phones.” –PCWorld, Sept. 2005
    2. “With e-payments still in the early stages of development in China…” –KPMG, Sept. 2007
  • Live-streaming as a concept has been around in the US and China for a long time. But according to Connie Chan in Sept. 2016: “…the livestreaming explosion in China really only started a year ago. When Chinese entrepreneurs saw Meerkat’s [a Silicon Valley app] explosive growth in March 2015, they sought to create livestreaming apps of their own; since then, over 150 live streaming apps have been launched in China.”

More from the NYTimes:

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 YY.com has for years made online stars of young Chinese people posing, chatting and singing in front of video cameras at home.

Let’s face it, most of this just boils down to Chinese companies making clever improvements to imported technologies, resulting in apps that are insanely popular in the Chinese market. In some cases, notably WeChat, the Chinese “versions” are manifestly better and more functional than their foreign counterparts, so Silicon Valley is now trying to copy them.

I’m not exactly speechless with awe. To be sure, WeChat is a great app, to the point that Facebook seems to be blatantly ripping off some of its features. WeChat’s achievement, however, is to take a large number of amazing functions and integrate them into one easy-to-use, well-designed platform. It’s not like Tencent invented those functions (be they “chatbots” or mobile payments or whatever).

The term micro-innovation is probably the best description of what Chinese firms like Tencent are doing. The innovation is mainly happening on the level of product design, customer experience and business models, not technology per se. It’s noteworthy, but I’m not sure it merits the kind of breathless coverage it sometimes gets in the media.

OMG you can do it all in one app! You DON’T EVEN HAVE TO SWITCH APPS!!!

On the other hand, and this is just a hypothesis, I would guess that the most impressive mobile tech innovations in China are mostly not reported on in the West because they are too specific to the needs of Chinese users (in terms of language etc.) for the average foreigner to understand why they’re a big deal.

Going back to the top-quoted article, the people at Andreessen Horowitz make much of dockless bike-sharing. This has apparently has taken China by storm since I left, but it’s questionable whether it will catch on in the US given its various problems. We’ll see.

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