Why Printed Phone Books are a Non-Starter in China

In the Hutong
Sorting through piles of paper
1449 hrs.

When I was a kid growing up, our idea of a really crude ethnic joke involved China and phone directories.

“Hey, how come there are Chinese phone books?”

“I dunno. Why?”

“Well, cause, there are so many Wings and Wongs that you’re liable to Wing the Wong number.”

Politically incorrect? Certainly. Juvenile? Absolutely? Is there a grain of truth here? Damn straight.

In fact, one of the things that kills the prospects for phone books in China is that, with only around 100 or so surnames, looking up a person by his or her name in the directory for a modest sized city (not to mention a place like Beijing) would likely give you a less-than-even chance of getting the right person on the first try. Add this to the problem that only a small percentage of China’s homes have a phone, and that most of us use mobile phones (where numbers can change every couple of years), and the value to the consumer of a white pages director is questionable.

And for your environmentalists out there – yes, the thought of circulating 125 million additional slabs of pulp every year must indeed cause you palpitations.

The problem is that the need for both a yellow pages and a white pages is growing as the number of phone users grows and small businesses grow. The logical answer is something electronic, and something that allows us to go beyond the simple listing paradigm.

Lyn Jeffery at Virtual China, a project of the Institute for the Future, calls our attention to the Xuntu digital map site and hints (but doesn’t quite say) that listing services are about to get a whole lot smarter, and the logical interface is not a ten-pound wad of paper but the mobile handset. Xuntu is actually a good start, but it needs to go further. We need listings that are comprehensive, geographically based, and subject to more advanced searching.

You’re looking for Mr. Wang. You know he lives in the Chaoyang District outside of 3rd Ring Road, and you know he’s a carpenter by trade. You should be able to input those facts in a search and come up with a narrower list than a normal white pages would give you. It should give fixed line, fax, and mobile listings, and you should be able to download a v-card. All of this would happen with a subscription.

For businesses, you should be able to call up a given area and get a complete listing of businesses by name, by type, or by proximity to you. You wouldn’t have to pay for a thing – advertising would support the entire effort.

This is not rocket science – it’s all doable now. However I think Lyn is right – we’ll probably need to wait for the operators to make a huge investment in 3G before they’re ready to think this creatively.

If they can’t get off their tails, though, this is a superb opportunity for a well-capitalized wireless value-added service provider.