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U.S. Tech Superpowers Are Getting Some Overseas Competition

August 31, 2017, 11:22 PM UTC

One of the hottest technology topics this year is the growing financial firepower, social influence and sheer ubiquity of America’s five tech superpower companies. It’s so typically American, though, to only see as far as the country’s borders.

It’s time for a less myopic gathering of technology’s muscular monsters. Let’s get cozy with the Enormous Eight.

That would be the five U.S. giants—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google parent company Alphabet and Microsoft—plus three superstars from Asia: Alibaba and Tencent of China, and South Korea’s Samsung. The three are all-powerful in their home countries, and increasingly ambitious elsewhere in the world—arguably even more so than their U.S. counterparts.

And they’ve been climbing the ranks of the world’s biggest companies. The five American tech superpowers plus the Asian giants grab eight of the 13 top spots of the world’s most valuable public companies. Two years ago, only one of these Asian tech titans squeaked into the top 30, Bloomberg data show. Right now, Alibaba is potentially one good market day away from passing Amazon.com as the world’s biggest e-commerce company by market capitalization.

Some of the Elite Eight—is that a better sobriquet?—operate in different corners of the world from one another. But each wields immense influence in at least one major consumer market, and has its sights on reshaping global technology habits.

Alibaba and Tencent in particular have grown big and powerful more quickly than U.S. tech giants did. To offer just one example: Shares of Alphabet Inc. are 22 times the price at which the company (then called Google) first sold shares to the public in August 2004. The stock price of Tencent, which held its initial public offering in Hong Kong a couple months before Google, is 441 times the IPO price.

Both Alibaba Group and Tencent rode the wave of rapid adoption of the internet in China, from 10.5% of the population in 2006 to more than 50% last year, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Samsung is already a global company and while Tencent and Alibaba generate the vast majority of their sales in China, the two have quickly pushed into places like India, Southeast Asia and other hot spots considered to be technology growth markets. Alibaba and Tencent are making investments in seemingly every corner of tech from Tencent’s stake in Tesla in the U.S. to Alibaba’s interest in an online grocery company in India.

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It’s fair to think the future of technology use and resulting effects on economies and labor markets will be in the hands of these eight titans, and perhaps other wannabe elites such as SoftBank or Uber.

As my Bloomberg News colleague Brad Stone wrote earlier this week, the stunning conviction of the heir to Samsung’s empire spotlighted how popular sentiment in South Korea has turned against the conglomerate and other corporate titans known as chaebols. America’s tech giants have lately become lightning rods for criticism in the U.S. from both the left and the right ends of the political spectrum.

The backlash against the chaebols should be a warning for all members of the Enormous Eight as they expand. Facebook’s stumbles in India proved that when powerful tech companies go abroad they aren’t always met with open arms. Tencent and other Chinese companies go along with government mandates to censor the internet. That may not go over well when Tencent travels the globe with its users. And it may not take much for germs of dissatisfaction to turn into a tsunami that hits all the superpowers.