Can Hong Kong build a ‘Silicon Harbour’? Nah, probably not

hong kong skylineI might be back in London now but I’m still keeping one eye on the East. My latest for IDG Connect is a piece on whether Hong Kong can really lay claim to the title “Silicon Harbour”, given its dubious track record of under-investment and the increasing strength of rival Asian cities including Tokyo, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Singapore.

Well, as always, the jury’s still out. There are a lot of good things going on in Hong Kong, as this upbeat infographic shows. It’s politically stable, safe from most natural disaster and you can use the internet freely (unlike in mainland China). It’s also well connected internet-wise and relatively cheap, as Frost & Sullivan analyst Danni Xu told me: “enterprises in Hong Kong using 100 Mbps Ethernet Point-to-Point (P2P) per month are paying only one third the price of a similar set up in Singapore”.

“However, despite these advantages/benefits, Singapore remains popular in certain cases over Hong Kong when it comes to selecting a destination to set up a data centre,” she added. “Google was a prime example of this when its plan to establish a data centre in Hong Kong did not materialise. The cost and difficulty of acquiring suitable land were cited as the key reasons for this.”

It also seems like HK’s key strengths, its value as a financial centre and proximity to China, are also its biggest drawbacks.  This means Singapore and other cities are usually preferred as regional hubs while HK is the choice as a base for firms looking to expand into China. It also means investors can be reluctant to plough their money into untried or tested tech start-ups as the culture is mainly about finance and property.

Forrester analyst Clement Teo had this:

“There are some structural factors may constrain ICT development in HK e.g. its relatively small domestic market and shrinking manufacturing and industrial sector do not provide sufficient incentives to spur technological developments. Moreover, HK needs to divvy up scarce resources – like land, office space and investment funding and talent – among established economic pillars such as financial services, real estates and retail.”

The HK government this year released an ambitious Digital 21 Strategy – the latest in a long line of such policy documents from the SAR – and certainly talks a good game. But I’m still hugely sceptical whether the political will is there to help smaller tech firms – the start-ups and similar which could genuinely turn the city state into a ‘Silicon Harbour’.

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Decline and fall of Akihabara as a tech hub

maid cafe signHas anyone been to Akihabara lately? I know I’m probably way behind the times here, but I still had the impression it was the land of all things shiny and technology-related – where impossibly gadgetry was salivated over by Japanese otaku and envied by foreign visitors.

As my latest ramblings on The Reg explain, I was rather disappointed to see, on exit from the station, pristine pedestrian walkways, giant IT mega-stores and shopping centres. Redevelopment over the past few years has apparently made the place a lot more family and tourist friendly but definitely not much fun for those interested in tech.

Most of the small, cramped, independently owned consumer electronics stores have closed now, but don’t blame the local mayor for wanting to redevelop the place. From my conversations with Japan tech experts and analysts it was going to happen anyway.

The area was big in the 70s, when according to some estimates, 10 per cent of all household appliances sold in Japan were bought in Akihabara. Then the PC and laptop boom in the 90s and beyond took over, drawing in a more geeky crowd keen to build their own customised machines. 

But now it’s all cosplay, manga, Maid Cafes and Hobby shops. It seems the tech industry, and Japanese consumers, have moved on. They’d rather get their gadgets online now and maybe try before they buy in a megastore like Yodabashi Camera, according to an IDC analyst I spoke to.

On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see the area reinvent itself as a geek manga/anime/cosplay paradise. Japan, if nothing else, has a remarkable resilience. 

The decline of Akihabara as a tech hub is therefore unlikely to portend the collapse of the country’s once unstoppable tech industry.