The Le Web of China’s mobile Internet

The Le Web of China’s mobile Internet

The Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) tips off technophiles to China's potential rise as a global mobile Internet trendsetter
GMIC - crowds
Some 3,000 people attended this year’s conference, up from around 800 last year and only 500 the first year the event was held. Guests from 26 countries were represented at GMIC 2011, according to organizers.

Each year, a number of tech conferences around the world attract thousands of international guests, generate dozens of news stories about new gadgets, applications or other cool technologies, and often define major trends to come for the Internet or mobile.

Paris, for example, has Le Web. In Las Vegas, there is the Consumer Electronics Show. Barcelona hosts the Mobile World Congress.

China, so far, has arguably not run such an event -- at least, until now.

A meeting of the minds

At the end of April in Beijing, the third annual Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) was held.

What made this year markedly different from the past was that thousands of international and domestic guests attended, including famous executives and entrepreneurs like Yoshikazu Tanaka, founder of the Japanese social network GREE, Peter Vesterbacka, head of Rovio, the company responsible for creating the insanely popular Angry Birds game, and Charles Chao, CEO of Sina, China’s leading web portal.

GMIC - Charles ChaoCharles Chao, head of Sina Corp., was among a number of VIP speakers at the event.

 

The exponential growth of GMIC 2011 indicates not only that the era of the mobile Internet has officially arrived but also that China, with more than 800 million mobile phone users, 300 million of whom already connect to the Internet through mobile devices, could soon become a dominant force in creating applications and other technologies that have an impact far beyond the country’s borders.

Already a mobile Internet browser created by UCWeb, a Guangzhou-based company, has more than 100 million users worldwide, many from developing countries, including Indonesia, Russia and India.

At GMIC 2011, more than 1,500 mostly Chinese developers showcased mobile applications created for domestic and overseas markets.

“Yes, [China] will have an impact on the global mobile situation in other geographies that are not as mature,” says Bruno Bensaid, founder of Shanghaivest, an investment advisory firm based in Shanghai.

“There is an ecosystem of applications that are being developed in China, that will pervade other regions with some customization and localization.”

The potential for China’s new army of mobile Internet companies to tap into markets beyond the mainland was met with equal interest from foreign players looking for opportunities to gain access to the country’s explosive population of mobile Internet users.

To be sure, a shadow of pessimism remains over the chances international Internet companies have in China’s tech sector after several high-profile failures here from the likes of Google, eBay and Yahoo.

An environment for cooperation

GMIC - Global Mobile Internet Conference 2011Attendees listen to executives from domestic and foreign Internet and mobile companies.Yet in the mobile web space, there seems to be at least a glimmer of renewed optimism that foreign firms can successfully enter the market, specifically via partnerships with established domestic companies that can provide local connections and expertise invaluable to the success of outsiders.

The Great Wall Club, a Beijing-based mobile industry consortium, which organized the conference and is also a first-of-its kind organization in the mainland, is working to establish itself as a platform to connect mobile web companies from abroad with domestic ones and vice versa.

How do I get my business into the United States? No one at this conference has asked me that question.— Michael Schneider, the CEO of Mobile Roadie

The organization frequently takes Chinese entrepreneurs and executives on international excursions to meet tech pioneers in other countries while inviting foreign entrepreneurs to come and learn what is going on with the mobile web in China.

“We created the platform, and we created the conference to help drive cooperation,” says Song Wei, vice president of the Great Wall Club. “We have big dreams. We hope we can help the industry to grow, to foster more cooperation and fair competition and create win-win deals for companies.”

The organization helped to facilitate a partnership between Rovio, the Finnish gaming company, and Downjoy, a Beijing-based company that provides online gaming services.

The development of the mobile web in China “will be much faster than anybody thought,” says Vesterbacka, Rovio's CEO.

“Every time I come here I come here, it is amazing how much it has changed. It will just amaze the world how fast China implements a lot of these technologies.”

Vesterbacka said his company has set a goal of 100 million downloads of its Angry Birds game this year in China alone.

GMIC - Yoshikazu TanakaYoshikazu Tanaka, founder of the Japanese social network GREE, spoke about his company’s new partnership with Chinese web giant Tencent as well as his ambitions for China and Western markets. In 2012, the company wants to be the leading entertainment brand in the country, the executive said, adding that Angry Bird stuffed animals and other toys are among the top three most copied products on mainland, beaten only by Hello Kitty and Disney.

Other recently established partnerships or partnerships in the works between international and Chinese companies include cooperation between UCWeb and i-Free, a Russian mobile technology provider, Tencent, one of China’s largest Internet companies, and GREE, the Tokyo-based social gaming giant, as well as Japanese mobile social game developer DeNA with NetDragon, a Chinese online game developer.

Growing demand

Some delegates who attended GMIC came because they are witnessing more demand for their technologies in China than in other countries, particularly in the west.

Ants Patrik Maran, co-founder of Qubulus, a Swedish company specializing in indoor positioning technologies for mobile devices, says Chinese interest in their product has been notably increasing.

“China has the largest population of mobile Internet users, so it is kind of leading the way in itself,” he explains.

“When it comes to the mobile Internet, India is far behind China and most of the Southeast Asian markets are behind, so they are here to take inspiration and learn from experiences already had by the Chinese companies.”

It will just amaze the world how fast China implements a lot of these technologies.— Peter Vesterbacka, Rovio CEO

Still, there are skeptics about the mobile Internet in China and the influence the country may or may not have abroad and at home. While 3G networks have been expanding, they are not yet pervasive across the country.

Countless developers are creating mobile applications for a population of mobile users unaccustomed to paying for products or stealing pirated software from elsewhere. And the domestic market remains highly fragmented between different types of mobile devices and application platforms, making it difficult to reach a critical mass of users.

There is also a shortage of talent in China, with big Internet companies, like Baidu, announcing that they have scores of job openings in their mobile divisions.

“A lot of Chinese companies are just focused on the China market,” saya Michael Schneider, the CEO of Mobile Roadie, a Los Angeles-based company producing customizable apps who attended GMIC.

“There is a difference between innovation and just adapting to your local market. I believe true innovation is still happening in Silicon Valley.”

“How do I get my business into the United States?” he adds. “No one at this conference has asked me that question.”

Originally from Hot Springs, Arkansas, Lara moved to Shanghai to work as a journalist in 2008. Before that, she wrote for CNN International in London.
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