Data Sheet—Why We Should Be Paying More Attention to China’s Two Tech Heavyweights: Alibaba and Tencent
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A generation ago even the wildly successful companies of an emergent Silicon Valley were seen by the rest of the economy as something of a niche, a sideshow to the main events on Wall Street and in industrial America. Those who weren’t paying attention did so at their peril. Trillions of dollars of market value later, Silicon Valley stalwarts drive the national economy’s agenda.
It’s altogether likely a generation from now the same will be said of the emergent champions of the Chinese technology industry. They are to Silicon Valley today what the nascent tech leaders were to the rest of the economy then: innovative, aggressive, hell-bent on winning, and springing from an environment that’s growing faster than anything around it.
China’s two dominant national champions are Tencent and Alibaba. They aren’t the only Chinese tech heavyweights that matter. But they are becoming increasingly more important—and valuable: each has a market capitalization that’s an order of magnitude bigger than the rest of the pack—and, fascinatingly, increasingly competitive with each other. They also are the subject of a major feature article in the July issue of Fortune Magazine, which posted online in the wee hours of Thursday morning on the East Coast and late in the afternoon in China.
Cynics say journalists write headlines first and then the stories. In this case it is literally true. “Ma versus Ma,”—for Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma—occurred to me the December day both billionaire entrepreneurs, who aren’t related, spoke at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou. I knew instantly that behind the delicious headline was the story of the most important business competition in the world today. Note that I wrote “the world,” not “China.”
In the early 2000s a tech observer could view any important development through the prism of the many things Google had on its plate. A similar claim could be made about Apple ten years later. Today, Tencent and Alibaba have so much going on from their overlapping investments and business strategies, to the alliances they are forming, and their slowly growing influence outside their home countries, that understanding them is critical to understanding business.
The Western audience still doesn’t intimately know these companies because they typically don’t use their products and services. (I now have my WeChat handle in my email signature, alongside my identical Twitter handle.) That will change, and anyone who doesn’t prepare for the shift will get left behind.
Freeze frame. People who either posted Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s cell phone number on Twitter or even just linked to an article in Splinter magazine that included the number found their accounts temporarily suspended. (Splinter’s own Twitter account was also suspended.) Users had to delete the improper tweets to be reinstated. “It’s against our policies to share other people’s private information on Twitter, including directly linking to that information,” the company said.
Start your Xerox machines. Meanwhile, Twitter rival Instagram is copying another feature from one of its competitors. The Facebook-owned messaging service announced its new IGTV video app that looks an awful like a clone of Google’s YouTube. Users will be able to post videos up to one hour in length versus the current one minute limit.
Start your Xerox machines, chapter 2. Speaking of copying features, movie chain AMC Theatres announced a subscription ticket service called “Stubs-A-List” (no, I can’t explain what that means) that looks a lot like MoviePass, but at a higher price point. For $20 a month, subscribers can watch three movies per week, to a maximum of 12 per month.
Villain or hero. Martin Tripp, a former Tesla process technician is being sued by the company over the alleged theft of confidential materials, including photographs and a video of the company’s manufacturing systems, and making false statements to the media. Tesla also alleged that Tripp is the employee who hacked the company’s manufacturing software, the act of “sabotage” recently referred to in a tweet by CEO Elon Musk. Tripp tells the Washington Post that he’s a whistleblower trying to protect the public from “some really scary things.”
Be the change. Wall Street titan Goldman Sachs said it will invest $500 million in companies led, founded or owned by women. The program will also help clients invest directly in private, late-stage companies or provide seed capital for women starting their own funds. “Effectively shutting out half the population from conversations at the highest levels of business is holding everyone back,” Goldman chief strategy officer Stephanie Cohen said.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. California lawmakers seem to be losing support on all sides in their net neutrality efforts. After the state assembly on Wednesday amended a proposed online anti-discrimination measure with several exceptions sought by telecom companies, both net neutrality supporters and telecom companies blasted the bill.
Good help is hard to find. One of the leading cryptocurrency producers, Stellar, is in talks to acquire Chain, the San Francisco-based startup building blockchain technology for the financial industry, for $500 million, to be paid in in Stellar’s digital currency Lumens. The acquisition may be motivated more by the need to get Chain’s engineering talent rather than its products–a classic acquihire, Fortune reports.
Show me the money. Authors, software developers, and other creators could track and collect royalty payments directly using a new blockchain technology announced by Microsoft and consulting firm EY on Wednesday. “The scale, complexity and volume of digital rights and royalties transactions makes this a perfect application for blockchains,” Paul Brody, EY’s global innovation leader for blockchain, tells Fortune.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The new, somewhat vaguely tasked health care startup being backed by Amazon, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Berkshire Hathaway got a CEO on Wednesday: noted surgeon, Harvard professor, and New Yorker author Dr. Atul Gawande. Geekwire’s Clare McGrane was quick to post a profile of the famed health care reform advocate. It’s been more than 10 years since Gawande got a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, but the physician is still trying to change the world, she reports. He’s also no shrinking violet in his comments about public policies:
His Twitter feed is filled with moderate but firm criticisms of the Trump Administration’s immigration policy, particularly the recent “no tolerance” policy that has led the administration to separate thousands of young children from their parents as they attempt to cross the border illegally. But he has also shared critical views on other federal policies, from the recent denuclearization talks with North Korea to tariffs to the administration’s rollback of Obamacare protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.
Gawande’s outspokenness sets him apart from many corporate leaders, including Bezos, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. It may lend him to being more daring and innovative in his approach to solving the healthcare system’s deep challenges, a problem that’s clearly close to his heart.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Facebook is Testing Subscriptions—But Only for Private Groups By Kevin Kelleher
Here’s How Much AT&T’s 2 New Unlimited Plans Cost By Aaron Pressman
Why Uber Is Paying Drivers More to Go Electric By Monica Rodriguez
Apple Has Green-Lit Immigration Anthology Series ‘Little America’ By Don Reisinger
How AT&T and Verizon Are Bulking Up to Take On Google and Facebook By Aaron Pressman
BEFORE YOU GO
HBO’s science fiction show Westworld offers a fictional playground for the rich to act out their fantasies in the Old West. We’re a long way from any technology like that, but Amazon has hooked up Alexa to a Westworld-themed spoken game called Westworld: The Maze. The audio-only game is a test of memory, improvisation, and self-interest, in which every choice brings you “closer to freedom or brings you spiraling to the edge, to death,” Amazon says. It doesn’t look like anything to me.