The Future of Microfilms

nescafe_china_youku_camera_cafe
Video on Youku (Photo credit: Gauravonomics)

Hutong West
Near Hollywood Beach

1037 hrs.

I read today with great interest Louise Watt’s superb AP story about microfilms, a new medium emerging at the intersection of online video, mobile media, and digital filmmaking. Louise explains how microfilms are growing in popularity in China.

What Watt touches, and fortunately does dwell upon, is how microfilms are still quite experimental in the PRC. Beyond the artistic sense, that means that there are no laws, regulations, or administrative rules in China that officially recognize microfilms as a medium, or that provide an official framework for their creation, distribution, and consumption. In most of the world, this would mean nothing. In China, it establishes the arc along which microfilms are set to develop. Or not develop.

A Different Media Market

By definition in China, the media is controlled by the Party. As such, media implicitly plays a different role in Chinese society than it does elsewhere: it performs the function that the Party sees fit.

And media is seen by the Party, first and foremost, as a tool of social administration: a means of communication between the Party, via the government, to the people, designed to support the Party’s goal of sustaining social harmony and support for the Party. Only after that is it seen as a means of conveying entertainment to the people, or as an industry to employ people and generate economic activity.

The mainstream media – newspapers, magazines, books, recordings, live performances, radio, film, and broadcast television – all began in post-revolutionary China in organizations controlled by the state. State control was axiomatic, and the Party created – and later, vetted – all content.

But when new media began emerging to challenge the state’s media monopoly – starting with cable and satellite, but soon moving on to the Web, games, blogs, and social media – the state made it clear that it saw these as subject to its monopoly, whether by licensing or by direct control. It seems unlikely, therefore, that microfilms will escape official notice and regulation.

The Coming Reckoning

So how will this roll out for microfilms? There are two likely outcomes. On the one hand, if the organs of the State Council and the Party Publicity Committee approach them as an undifferentiated part of the mass of videos finding their way online in China, microfilms will ride along with whatever the future is for online video as a whole.

But if those government and party offices for whatever reason decide to see microfilms as a separate development – especially if they become a real, vibrant threat to the growth of China’s mainline film industry, or if they become an outlet for political angst – then microfilms will be treated as a new medium, and they will face turbulent times.

In China, the government tends to go through four stages in the journey to legitimizing a new medium. This is not a formal process as much as it is a modus operandi, but it has been remarkably consistent over the past two decades.

Ignorance – First, the government will decline to pay official attention the microfilm phenomenon. It will, instead, take a stance where it officially ignores the media, all while watching it out of the corner of the eye. This tacit approval allows the government to wait, watch, and bide its time before stepping in.

Reaction – Finally, when somebody makes and distributes a microfilm that crosses an invisible political line and causes an uproar, the government will be left with no choice but to step in and take action. The move will be to slam on the brakes, possibly making the production and/or distribution of such films illegal, and ordering sites like Youku and Tudou to cease production and distribution.

Experimentation – When the government acknowledges the benefits of microfilms (assuming that it sees them,) it will begin a gradual process of experimentation. That might developing a licensing regime and framework that will ensure the films support – or, at least, do not operate in direct opposition to – the state. Alternately, the government could mandate that all microfilms are only distributed through government-approved sites. In the worst case, it would restrict the production of all such films to state-owned entities. Either way, the process will forge a sustainable framework under which microfilms can be made in China.

Accommodation – Once the framework is in place, the government enters a phase of fine-tuning that system, opening it up to more participants, or to less, or under different conditions.

Softening the Blow

It is important to remember that at any of these stages, there is room to influence the process, to soften the government’s approach. The degree to which this is successful depends on the unity of the participants in the process, and the level of self-regulation (read “self-censorship”) the parties are ready to engage in.

For many media – blogs, microblogs, and other user generated content – the process of reckoning with these developments saw the government turn to the platform owners to control the content. The platform owners, in turn, subjected users to rules that would see their content deleted and accounts closed if they posted political or prurient content. That allowed for a relatively easy solution.

If the distribution of microfilms remains limited to sites like Tudou and Youku, the government may not see a need for much further regulation – the authorities already have clear understandings in place with the online video sites, and keeping track of the few dozen microfilms each week is a simple matter.

But the prospect of getting a large group of producers and directors of these films to sign up to a means of self-regulation seems slim, and if distribution goes outside of those channels that the government can control – if peer-to-peer sharing kicks into high gear, for example, the regulation will have to happen at the source. And the government will have to make its controls draconian to enforce control on people making movies with phones, handhelds, and laptops.

Media will Serve

The Party’s broader policy direction of late does not seem to augur a greater opening to ideas and an independent media industry, even though the past twenty years have proven to China’s leaders that absolute control in an age of user generated media is practically impossible.

But when the government needs to use media – including its policies on its use – as a means to sustain social stability, regulators see it as their duty to ensure that media serves the needs of the state. As flexible as the medium may be – and microfilms are an exercise in flexibility of topic, format, creation, and distribution – the government has proven itself increasingly deft in crafting regulatory regimes that permit new media to operate on the Party’s terms.

At some point, microfilms will face a reaction. What filmmakers have to do is decide whether they want to avoid that reaction – or provoke it – as a pathway to a stable, legitimized future, or to another kind of future entirely.

Setting China’s Innovation Bar

Hutong West
Disrupting my reading
1953 hrs. 

Now that I am spending more time in Silicon Valley and its satellite outposts of innovation in the US, the question posed to me over more meals and espressos is “do you think China will ever become innovative?”

After a lot of time to think about that question on planes an in hotel rooms, the best answer I have to that is another question.

“How do you define innovation?”

One expert with whom I shared a panel about a year ago said that innovation is like pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

That’s witty, pithy, and, I have found, gets your audience on-side. Which is nice when your audience is a client writing big checks for your advice. Unfortunately, it is also wrong.

A Relevant Definition

You can define innovation if you think about it. Franz Johansson has thought a lot about it, and the way he defines it as something that is both novel (new, never seen before) and useful.

That’s actually a pretty good starting point, but global experience proves something may be novel, useful, but not particularly relevant. The XboX Kinnect is novel and useful, but not particularly relevant if you live in China, where video game consoles are essentially banned. The Founder Group was built largely on an innovation laser typesetting of Chinese characters, a remarkable breakthrough in China but largely irrelevant to three-quarters of the planet. A review of the history of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) offers a list of innovations that never found the proper context that made them commercial, meaningful, and worthwhile.

A good working definition of an innovation, then, is something that is novel, useful, and relevant to a given audience.

What is more, innovation need not be in product: breakthrough innovations in process can be incredibly disruptive: think Fred Smith’s breakthrough with overnight freight processing that created FedEx, or, classically, Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.

Through a Filter, Darkly

We tend to view innovation in China through the lenses of two fallacies. The first lens is based on our view of China, and the second on our view of innovation.

Our view of China suggests that because China does not have a consistent record of innovation in recent years, and because many Chinese companies and entities proclaim they are being innovative when (by our definition, anyway) they are not, that China does not innovate.

This could be disproved, except for the second fallacy, which is our view of innovation. We tend to look at innovation like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” seeing only landmark breakthroughs and totally original ideas as true innovation. This is a natural prejudice: our lifetimes have witnessed so many breakthroughs that our personal standards are high.

But they are unrealistic. The advances that turned the technologies used for mainframe computers into the personal computer revolution were not breakthroughs, but they were profound innovations nonetheless.

When we reframe our standards and work with the definition of innovation above, we can view China’s current innovation – and its prospects – differently.

Innovation Happens – Even in China

China is not yet an economy that is driven by its own innovations, but by those of others. Nonetheless, there are indicators that innovation is taking place in Chinese enteprises. Huawei’s investments in R&D following the telecom bust in 2002 have been yielding industry-leading innovation for three years in its networks business. BYD is using old battery technology in an innovative way. And Yuneec is on the verge of doing for general aviation aircraft what Tesla has done for the family sedan.

All of which goest back to my clients’ question. If Chinese enterprises are disrupting the mobile communications, automotive, and aviation industries, what industry is next? The best way to answer that is to watch for the little innovations, the process innovations, the incremental breakthroughs that turn out advances that are novel, useful, and relevant. Find those, and you will find the next point of disruption.

Five Predictions: China’s Business Environment in 2014

Hutong West
Sunday Afternoon Countdown to Morning in Beijing
1526 hrs. 

Much ink and focus has been given of late to understanding China’s political evolution. Too little, on the other hand, has been given to what it will all mean to those of us who must decide what role China will play in our business plans in the next two to three years.

Futurism is alchemy in the best of circumstances, and nowhere more so than in the case of China. Nonetheless, if we extrapolate from current events, it appears that China has embarked on a course of commercial nationalism, if not outright mercantilism.

In the spirit of the season, then, we offer our five predictions for 2014:

1. China will build a more protected environment at home for its state-owned, state-coopted, and “accidental champion” enterprises through an increase in the use of soft protectionism.

2. Those enterprises will thrive at home, but increasingly will be pushed abroad, seeking prestige, less competition, and faster growth.

3. Trade and industrial policy will test the absolute limits of what China can get away with under the WTO, and Beijing will conduct a propaganda campaign to try and undermine the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

4. Foreign brands will find it more difficult to gain share in China. In addition to soft protectionism, they will face the continued relative decline in the prestige of foreign goods/brands in a growing number of sectors.

5. In 2014 we will see the beginnings of a new crop of Chinese entrepreneurs, more of whom will be starting their companies from second, third, and fourth tier cities, or even overseas. The cost and complexity of doing business in China’s first tier cities – along with the declining quality of life – will shift focus away from Beijing and Shanghai.

I’ll be addressing these more in the coming year.

The Challenge of the State-Co-opted Enterprise

Hutong West
Santa Ana Fever
1124 hrs.

When we talk about broad categories of Chinese enterprises, we focus on ownership: state-owned enterprises, or those companies owned and guided by the government; private enterprises, or those companies owned by other companies or by individuals; and foreign enterprises, those companies legally or functionally owned by non-Chinese corporations or individuals.

You don’t need to work with this taxonomy for long to discover that it is inadequate. Hybrids abound, and there are a growing number of firms that do not fit neatly into these distinctions.

One type that we must address, even if it seems chimerical, is the “state-co-opted enterprise.” This is a private company, one not owned by the state, that has not only submitted itself to the modicum of government oversight mandated by law and policy, but also by intent or action has made itself an extension of state policy. Most often, this is done in order to secure a right to operate in a particularly sensitive sector.

The reason this phenomenon needs to be examined is that there is an implicit belief outside of China that many Chinese companies, while ostensibly not state-owned, are in fact controlled by the Party or some arm of the Chinese government. This is especially the case for large Chinese companies with a growing international presence and opaque ownership structures.

Huawei’s singular employee-ownership structure, for example, vexed US Congressional investigators. The ownership of Qingdao-based white-goods maker Haier remains obscure at best. Lenovo protests that it is “100% market oriented,” but the Chinese Academy of Sciences retains 36% ownership of the enterprise. And Tsingtao Brewery Group, the majority owner of Qingdao’s Tsingtao Brewery, has an ownership structure that remains unclear. These arrangements, unconventional and strange to western observers, seem tailor-made to hide the hand of government or military behind these enterprises.

But ownership is not the sole source of concern. There seems little question that China’s internet giants – Baidu, Youku/Tudou, Alibaba, Tencent, and Sina – are not state-owned by any measure. But their leadership in an industry where foreign participation is limited by government policy gives them the status of what Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster called “a state-sponsored monopoly.” Such a status could be seen as leaving these companies inordinately beholden to the government if the Party were ever to call in its chits. Worse, as we enter an era where cyberwarfare is becoming a core mode of international conflict, the capabilities encompassed by China’s internet giants offer the Party and PLA motive and opportunity to co-opt these companies.

None of this is to say that these companies dance to the government’s every pull on the string. But for each of these firms it is going to require more than bold assertions of independence under questioning to convince the world that they are not somehow in the thrall of the Party, particularly if Xi Jinping stokes commercial nationalism.

Those of us who work with, represent, or do business with China’s emerging non-state enterprises either need to be demonstrate their independence from the outset, or we need to address the relationship between these firms and the government proactively, so they are not “discovered” by accident.

Is Apple Going (China) Mobile?

Hutong West
Two hours sleep, three cups coffee
1039 hrs. 

 

China Mobile
China Mobile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wall Street Journal has lit up the net with an article proclaiming that the ink is drying on a deal between Apple and China Mobile for the carrier to (finally) (officially) offer iPhones on its network. Nothing has been confirmed by either Apple or China Mobile, but that has not stopped the speculation.

My take on the deal has not changed from when I wrote this piece in September: the value of this deal is far from clear. As such, it might be time to add a few more points to the debate to provide some perspective:

1. There have been 89 million iPhone 5 handsets sold thus far.

2. There are already 42 million iPhones using the China Mobile network. These are people with iPhones and a China Mobile account.

3. Optimistic analysts expect another 20 million iPhones will be sold next year in the event of an China Mobile deal, around 1.5 million phones a month.

4. Said analysis suggests that just under 3% of China Mobile’s subscribers will buy iPhones in the first year, and presumably a percentage of those will be replacements, given that your average Chinese smartphone user replaces his/her device every 15-18 months.

5. If Apple did sell an additional 20 million iPhones in the first year of its business with China Mobile, at, say, $400 revenue per unit, that would be $8 billion. A very nice chunk of change, and it would deliver a respectable jump in iPhone sales worldwide.

6. Putting that in perspective, Apple’s revenues for the 52 weeks prior the end of last quarter were over $170 billion. Therefore, even a very successful debut with China Mobile would give Apple a 5% revenue bump.

None of this is to say that this will be a bad deal for Apple. Even if Apple sold only an additional 10 million units, selling 10 million units of anything in the mobile business counts as a win, even for Apple. At the same time, it is important to keep in perspective exactly what a China Mobile deal would mean – and, more important, what it would not mean – for the company.

Will Chinese Pay for Content?

Hutong Forward
An undisclosed location
in the American Midwest

1649 hrs. local

Happy shoppers
Happy shoppers (Photo credit: Phillie Casablanca)

A contentious debate about China in the media industry is whether or not Chinese will pay for content. Most intelligent observers would answer no: Early experiments selling music were not encouraging, and with search engine Baidu offering links to free downloads, and later a legitimate streaming service, China’s mostly-young internet users could be forgiven for thinking “what’s the point of paying?”

Indeed, piracy of music has been so rampant that many thoughtful commentators, including Eric Priest at the University of Oregon, have championed the use of “alternative compensation systems” that presume that nobody will pay for the content itself. Like, ever.

At the China 2.0 conference at Stanford last month, there was gloom in the room when the people funding content plays took the stage. Annabelle Yu Long, the CEO of Bertelsmann’s China Corporate Center and managing director of the music giant’s Asian investment arm, noted that China, with a quarter of the planet’s ears, represented only 2% of Bertelsmann’s business, and this after decades of effort. The rest of the money people on the stage – Jenny Lee of GGV Capital, Raymond Yang of WestSummit Capital, and David Chao of DCM – Chinese all, agreed with the simple proposition that the Chinese do not pay for content, ergo they would not ever pay for it. As it is, so shall it ever be.

Getting Beyond ASCAP’s Messages

But as the discussion at China 2.0 progressed, and the panelists exhausted their messages and began to share experiences, a more nuanced truth came out. After talking about music, ebooks, and even movies, one of the panelists summed up by saying that as Chinese users become more prosperous and as quality and convenience become more important, they are  proving themselves willing to pay for music, movies, and even ebooks.

Two days later and an hour away at the annual conference of the Hua Yuan Science and Technology Association (HYSTA), the discussion was more optimistic. Oliver Lu of AppAnnie showed a chart that compared app downloads in China over the past several years to app revenues. Interestingly, over the past three quarters, the rate of growth of revenues has passed – and nearly doubled – the rate of growth in downloads. Chinese are starting to pay for apps. The numbers are not huge – your average Chinese spends 1/12 of the average Japanese user on apps – but the trend is clearly pointing in a positive direction.

Play with Me, Pay for Me

The difference lies in a generational shift – as well as a cultural shift – in consumption and a presumption of value. My generation thinks of content in terms of music, video, movies, and books. China’s post-80s and post-90s generations, on the other hand, grew up eschewing those formats because those were the most tightly controlled and least interesting.

Instead, they grew up playing games, and that cohort is only just reaching the age where they can afford to pay good money for their interactive diversions. Over half – 53% – of the revenue of Tencent, China’s huge portal and social media player, comes from games, which are now a $6.3 billion business in China, more than search advertising and display advertising combined. Ten of the top ten downloaded mobile apps in China are games.

A Future that Pays

That’s great for game developers, you’ll think. But what about everyone else in the content business. But that is exactly a the point. Once you get Chinese used to paying for one form of content (games), the door can then open for them to start paying for other forms. Develop the habit, create a value around legal versus pirated downloads, and you are on your way.

Call me a pollyanna, but it genuinely seems too early for the content makers to write China off. Use models like Eric Priest’s in the meantime if you have to, but lay the long term groundwork so that when your audience has more money than time, you are ready to capitalize on a very different kind of Chinese content consumer.

Six Principles of Entrepreneurial IPR Protection in China

Hutong Forward
Somewhere in San Francisco
0930 hrs. 

The issue of intellectual property rights and their protection continues to bedevil the agenda between China and the rest of the world. Do Chinese companies cheat? Certainly many do. Does China have on the books a comprehensive set of intellectual property protection laws? Without doubt. Does the government act to protect the IPR of foreign companies? Not as much as they could. All indications are that this situation will continue for at least the foreseeable future.

For that reason, it is perhaps past time to start drawing bigger lessons from this situation. It is time we started approaching IPR less as inventors and their attorneys, and more as businesspeople.

To that end, I propose six principles of what I call “entrepreneurial” IPR protection in China. Lawyers and the like are essential to the IPR protection process, but experience in China has proven that legal protection is insufficient. In addition to having legal eagles at your side, you need to take your own steps to protect yourself.

1. Start by protecting the rights of others. Remember that if it is all about you or a small subgroup, you are going to lose in the name of the greater good. The more protection benefits everyone, the more it benefits you.

2. Make it about citizenship. Actively support the creation of an IPR protection system that serves the interests of all parties, including the public at large.

3. Look inside before looking outside. Do all you can in your internal processes to protect your rights. For example, if you are walking around with a laptop that is not using disk-level encryption, but you pay for a high-power IPR attorney, you are doing this all backwards.

4. Don’t be an IPR troll. Protect only what you must. License what you can. Give away as much as possible.

5. Be a wellspring, not a storehouse. People will support your IPR if they depend on you as a source of innovation more than they depend on the innovations themselves. Remember that the well is more valuable than a bucket of water.

6. Talk about what you are doing. When you are being smart about protecting your IPR outside the court system, talk about it. Each of the steps above will brand you as smart, forward-thinking, and the kind of company people will respect. If nothing else, all of that reputation capital will serve you well when you are forced to take the nuclear option and drag some beloved Chinese company into court, as it strengthens your case politically (and make no mistake – court decisions in China are political.)

In the case of many companies, there are even more steps you can take that are specific to your industry or situation. This list, however, represents a set of general prescriptions and a place to start in rethinking your approach to protecting your IPR in China.