China 2014: The Empire Strikes Back

chinese flagIt’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least, if you’re an IT commentator or a vendor with “end of year round-up/next year predictions” stories to sell in to the media.

As a hack whose inbox has been deluged with this kind of dross for weeks now, I’m going to look ahead to 2014 with a more focused question, namely: “how will Western companies fare in China next year, and vice versa?”

Well, first up the signs aren’t looking good for US tech firms. Washington has turned up the anti-China rhetoric fiercely in 2013 and with high profile reports like Mandiant’s finally tying Beijing to cyber espionage, things were already looking tricky for US firms in China.

Then Edward Snowden happened – a gift from heaven for the Chinese government which can now portray itself as victim of spying, not a perp, with an even straighter face.

Expect the backlash to come from Beijing, partly because of this, but also because China has some world class companies of its own now, especially when it comes to networking equipment (Huawei and ZTE), PCs (Lenovo) and mobile devices (all of the above plus Xiaomi, Oppo, Meizu, Coolpad, etc etc), so it can afford to be more self-reliant.

IBM and HP have both announced they’re shedding jobs in the PRC, despite the strategic importance of the market.

IBM just announced a new cloud partnership which will see it team up with Azure partner 21 Vianet to provide managed private cloud capabilities to business customers there, however it admitted in October a 22 per cent sales slump in China. Ouch.

Cisco has seen a recent 6 per cent sales slump in China with John Chambers admitting on a November earnings call: “China continued to decline as we and our peers worked through the challenging political dynamic in that country.”

Then there’s Qualcomm, which counts China as a $1bn market, has worked with countless local OEMs to support their products and yet now finds itself at the centre of an anti-monopoly investigation which could see it fined in excess of $1bn.

The rule in Beijing seems to be; if you can’t beat ‘em (and China still has some way to go before its chip makers are world class), fine ‘em.

Expect more of the same next year.

So what of the great Chinese invasion? I spoke recently to Deloitte TMT partner William Chou about this.

In the hardware space historically only the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and Huawei had a chance to grow their offerings abroad, but with VC firms now splashing the cash, more innovative local firms will be able to invest in R&D and expand their footprint internationally, he argued.

Coolpad, Meizu and Xiaomi, to name but three, could be names to watch for 2014.

“There are a lot of these smartphone manufacturers but the ones which will be winners are  not really the handset manufacturers but the ones which can combine hardware, software and internet services, like Xiaomi,” Chou told me.

Others he mentioned included a Shenzhen-based handset firm looking at JVs in France and South Africa and an unnamed private company “aggressively” looking to expand in the European market.

On the internet side there are fewer potential breakaway global brands which could make a real impact in 2014.

Tencent’s WeChat is definitely one of them, although Chou argued that Google-beater Baidu will struggle as it seeks to “re-engineer its business model from search to mobile internet”.

There are also a host of little-known software and online firms under-the-radar ready to pounce, including one of the China’s online travel giants which is looking to acquire in Germany, Chou revealed.

In fact, the recently announced Deloitte Fast 500 list of fastest growing APAC start-ups had more companies from the Middle Kingdom than any other represented, although none made the top ten.

Going into 2014 entrepreneurs who are able to “apply technology to other industries” will stand the best chance of success, Chou said.

“China has an ageing population and a one-child policy so healthcare is a serious problem, so how you apply e-health will be a trend,” he explained. “Another major challenge is pollution, so clean tech will be a major area for entrepreneurs to consider as well.”

Whatever happens, things are never quiet in this part of the world. Let’s see what you’ve got 2014.

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No news is bad news for Apple in China

chinaSo there it is. Apple’s much publicised Beijing iPhone launch event ended. With no news.

It appears that the fruit-themed company, while claiming that China will be its biggest market soon, does not believe it’s THAT important. At least yet. All the poor hacks were offered was a video of last night’s US launch. Ouch.

More importantly for Cupertino, the prices it has stuck on its new 5C and 5S devices will mean only the most hardy fanboys and girls will want to buy them. The iPhone 5C is definitely not budget, so it will fail to appeal to the mass low-end market currently consuming smartphones in China and India like there’s no tomorrow.

A 5C will retail for between 4,488 and 5,288 yuan ($733-864, £466-549). Compare this with the price for the high-end 5S in the US ($649-849) and you can see why some commentators reckon it will fail in the PRC.

It’s certainly not enough to beat Xiaomi’s impressively spec’d Mi-3 at 1,999 yuan ($326).

Forrester analyst Bryan Wang told me that it needs to come down to 2,999-3,499 yuan in order to “eat up the market share” of the likes of Huawei, Lenovo and Meizu, but that at present prices, the local Android players will be “really relieved”.

However, Apple is likely to have left itself some breathing room. It’s plan? Test the market out with these inflated prices and then “lower the price after a couple of months”.

Apple’s other hope of gaining much needed market share in China come from a possible tie up with the world’s largest operator, China Mobile, which has over 700 million subscribers.

No announcement was made at the Beijing press “conference” today but Wang believes it will come, when the carrier has a 4G network to announce. The reason? The 5C and 5S both support TD-LTE, a standard China Mobile helped to build.