Bet the Farm, Or Settle for Table Scraps?

In China, Go for Broke or Accept that Less Is More
Franc Kaiser

Harvard Business Review
April 4, 2014

Nanjing Road pedestrian mall, perhaps the busi...
Nanjing Road pedestrian mall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this intriguing essay, Shanghai-based consultant Kaiser suggests that for foreign companies, the glory days are over, and the only two strategies left are to either fight for one of the top two positions in your industry (against what might be brutal competition) or accept that your market in China will be modest, picking up what others cannot.

I really enjoyed the essay, because I like contrarian thinking on business in China. But I have a couple of problems right out of the gate.

First, I find it hard to accept that all companies in all industries face such a stark, binary choice. Airlines and banks do not face the same challenges or opportunities as McDonald’s or Intel.

Second, Kaiser’s choices seem better suited to Fortune 500 multinationals with a single line of business. Many large companies will do very well being modest players in multiple markets or product lines without ever being a market leader or settling for modest returns, and many small- and medium-sized businesses will gorge themselves on a modest market position.

Third, the market is immense, and opens the door for a wide range of niche and multi-niche strategies that would be incredibly lucrative, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses from outside of China.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Kaiser implies that there is but a single motive that brings companies to China: profits from China operations. For many companies this is true, but for others, being in China offers other rewards. Companies in the mobile industry benefit from participating in the largest, most lucrative market in the world; other firms are in China so they can better defend against Chinese rivals elsewhere; still others could care less about profits, as China drives volume that supports lower unit costs in more lucrative markets.

One reason there are few good “China strategy” books out there is that there is no good, blanket approach for China that spans across a wide range of companies and industries over a modest span of time. Corporate strategy is bespoke, like the course for a ship. When we write books, we can talk about avoiding storms, rocks, and shoals, and we can talk about the processes that lead to great strategy or effective implementation. Everything else is situational.

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China and “Datathermal Energy”

Hutong West
Letting the Sunshine In
0909 hrs.

Much of my March was spent working with clients who are thinking through some of the issues facing the growing data center market in China. For the uninitiated, a “data center” is a place that houses anywhere from one to tens of thousands of servers. This blog sits in a data center, your bank information sits in a data center, there are a lot of them, and these places are growing.

Little wonder. One delightful quote from suggests why.

“From the year 2003 and working backwards to the beginning of human history, we generated five exabytes–that’s 5,000,000,000 GB – of information.

By last year, we were cranking out that much data every two days.

By next year, we’ll be doing it every 10 minutes.”

That quote was from two years ago. Draw the curve in your mind, and you can figure that, conservatively, today we could be generating five exabytes of data every five minutes. Not all of that is going to sit in phones, laptops, external hard drives, thumb drives, or those little SD cards that we stick in our digital cameras. Much of it has to sit in data centers.

The Great Heat Sink

Which is fine, until you consider that data centers suck energy the way blue whales suck krill: in massive quantities, and with large amounts of undesirable waste at the end of the process. In the case of data centers, that waste comes in the form of heat, which then demands more energy to power cooling, which in turn generates heat. The bigger data centers get, the more heat we are talking about. And data centers are getting quite large indeed, measured in millions of square feet of servers stacked like so much electronic cord wood.

Some data centers have started addressing heat as a resource, rather than a waste-product: IBM’s Swiss data center heats a pool; Telehouse in the UK is heating homes in London’s Docklands district; and Notre Dame’s Center for Reserch Computing is heating the flowers of a local municipal greenhouse with the heat from a rack of high-performance computing nodes.

Not everyplace where there are data centers needs heat, though. Some places simply need energy. As any engineer will tell you, where there is heat, there is potential energy. The key will be to capture enough heat so that it can be efficiently turned into energy, for example through steam turbines. Energy generated like this – through the waste heat of data centers, we will call “data-thermal energy.”

Data-Thermal China

China is a natural place for the development of data-thermal energy. The country is early enough in the cycle of development for data centers to start designing its largest server farms to capture and channel heat efficiently. And scale will not be an issue in China. Leaving out government-run data centers entirely, some commercial data centers, like one 6.3 million square-foot beast under construction in Langfang just outside of Beijing, will have more floor space than the Pentagon.

The ability to capture and use waste heat efficiently also opens the prospect of cutting down on air-conditioning costs. If the heat can simply be blown – or sucked – away from the servers and into a central collection point for energy generation, the need to actually cool the air should abate a bit.

There is considerable engineering work to be done, but this is a worthy (if not essential) direction of thinking for the people designing and growing China’s server farms. It will demand imagination and discipline: the old way of doing things – stack ’em high, chill ’em down, and blow the hot air out the window – is cheap and pervasive. As the costs of energy grow and sustainability becomes more important, however, Big Data will need to start seeing itself as a utility, not just a customer.


“In the future, coding will be a core skill, not a specialization.”

— Why I am learning Python at the age of 49

Setting the Stage for Chinese Innovation

Near People’s Square, Shanghai
Skyline in Silhouette 
0700 hrs. 

Walking the floor at both CES in Las Vegas and Electronica China in Shanghai within a ten-week space provides one with a clear view of how far Chinese enterprise has come, and, equally important, the degree to which international technology businesses have lost their former dominance in China.

One could conclude from these impressions that multinational tech companies are in a state of permanent decline in China: Beijing’s unstated but ongoing policy of import substitution has succeeded, and foreign companies are fighting a losing battle. You don’t need to go to trade shows for anecdotal evidence. Just look in purses and backpacks: ZTE, Huawei, TCL, Lenovo, and Yulong are five of the top ten mobile device brands, and they’re gaining on the global giants.

But if you dig a bit deeper, as you can at a show like Electronica, you find that the opportunities for foreign tech companies have not disappeared: they have evolved. To understand why and how, it is useful to start by looking back on how the tech business developed in China.

From Buy to Make

Since the beginning of reforming and opening in China in 1978, the nation has essentially gone through three phases of foreign involvement in technology-based industries.

The first phase was imports, when the government focused on bringing urgently-needed products like personal computers, telephone switches, automobiles, machine tools, and other technology-based products into China. The need for these products, most of which were essential to ease key bottlenecks in the development process, was so urgent that key ministries were permitted the use of precious foreign exchange to purchase those goods.

China’s leaders always expected, however, that the nation would begin producing these goods on its own, preferably in local companies, but realistically in joint ventures with global technology companies who would bring three essential ingredients: the products, with their component technologies; production know-how, with process technologies; and the capital to build the production facilities. This was the second phase: the shift to local production.

Fast Followers

By the mid-1990s, though, another shift began to take place. As the global tech giants ramped up production in China to a mass-scale, local firms began manufacturing their own technology goods. Local firms began to dominate production, using a “fast-follower” approach: “maybe we won’t be innovators, or even the first to market with a given innovation, but we will come to market so soon after the innovation leader that we will still reap our share of the market.”

By last year, the payoff of this shift had become apparent. Chinese high-tech companies were long past needing foreign manufacturers to teach them how to build high-tech products, to help them implement cutting-edge production processes, or even to finance the construction of factories. Those local firms unable to bootstrap their own capabilities and finance now had a vast stable of local and foreign companies ready to provide the necessary technology, and finance, thanks to cash flow and capital markets, was no longer a problem.

Innovation, however, remained a challenge. While a handful of local tech companies –  notably (but not limited to) Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, and Leovo – had begun to innovate, widespread innovation that would offer a more sustainable competitive advantage (and a larger share of profits) still seemed a ways off.

Enter the Innovation Platforms

And there it remains today.

This gap between efficient production and value-driven manufacturing is the heart of the next opportunity for foreign firms. While the days of foreign brands utterly dominating technology markets in China may be past, more than ever China’s manufacturers need a steady stream of innovations upon which they can base their own innovating.

Technologies that serve as the foundation that allows others to innovate are what we can call innovation platforms. Five factors make innovation platforms stand out from other technical advances:

Significant – The core innovation is a genuine advance that is both useful and relevant;

Substantial – There is a obvious, large, and diverse market for products based on the innovation that offer substantial profit potential, and the technology is easily commercialized;

Shared – The company promulgating the core advance is more interested in creating an ecosystem than a monopoly, i.e., it is content with focusing on supporting and enhancing the core technology and not getting into the business of its customers/licensees;

Stable – Any subsequent changes in the underlying technology are likely to be iterative, not major, for several generations of products. This makes it economically viable for companies to invest in R&D based on the innovation platform.

Supported – Rather than serving as a glorified patent troll, the companies that develop innovation platforms invest heavily in resources designed to assist product developers create viable commercial products, such as on-site engineering support, system validation labs, extensive documentation, or developer groups. In addition, the company continues to invest in improving the core technology.

Early Innovation Platforms

Many innovation platforms take the form of acknowledged industry standards. Examples like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB could be considered a form of innovation platforms, in that their technologies enabled the creation of products and even companies.

But when we talk of innovation platforms, we are really looking at products and technologies that spawn not only products, but companies and entire industries. Some illustrative examples:

The Xerographic Process: Invented by Chester Carlson and later commercialized by Haloid/Xerox, which begat the photocopier, the laser printer, desktop publishing, and many specialized sectors;

The Intel 8000 microprocessor family, that together enabled the creation of the personal computers, stand-alone video games, and a half-dozen major industries;

Qualcomm’s CDMA: CDMA enabled the commercialization of the internet, created the telematics industry, and is on its way to recreating the automotive, trucking, and healthcare industries, among others.

Each of these companies took an indirect lesson from the failure of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, an industrial trust that tried to control the film business as well as the manufacture of cameras and film stock. It was, arguably, Edison’s greatest failure. By exercising a modicum of control over the core technology, supporting it, advancing it, and making it available on reasonable terms, Xerox, Intel, and Qualcomm each fostered the creation of immense economic value.

Platforms for the Future

In a world where industrial and engineering capability is a scarce quantity, the easiest way to make a return on a major innovation is to create a vertical industry around it, building the components, creating the product or system, and distributing it under your own brand. The Bell System did this for nearly a century with telephones, and IBM and a handful of other companies did this for the first three decades of the computer industry.

But when the ability to design, engineer, and industrialize complex products is widely distributed, as it is today, robust companies are built on either using innovation to enable industries, or in building on innovation to create industries.

For the time being, Chinese companies are (generally) comparatively better at building industries based on key innovations, and European and particularly US companies are (generally) comparatively better at consistently creating core innovations that can serve as the platforms for those industries. This does not mean that no core innovations will come out of China, or that the US is no longer capable of product development and commercialization.

But it does suggest that the richest opportunities in China for foreign companies, particularly those in science, engineering, and technology-based industries, lies in licensing and enabling Chinese manufacturers, rather than competing with them.

The question facing tech companies, then, is whether and how to make use of the company’s innovations – or an ongoing stream of them – in order to serve as a profitable and indispensable platform for Chinese innovation. And for those of us who watch this market, the pressing question is “in which industries will the next round of innovation platforms emerge?

I leave the first question to the companies themselves. For the second question, my early research points to transportation, healthcare and biosciences, construction, energy, and the environment. I know: I have my chips on a lot of spots on the roulette table. In the coming months, I look forward to sharing with you why I think things are going that way.

The Innovation Trail: Hisilicon

Hutong West
Blue Moon and Justified
1942 hrs

When challenged to come up with examples of innovative Chinese companies – or those that might start innovating soon – many of us are hard-pressed to come up with names beyond the obvious Tencent, Huawei, and Lenovo. To help remedy this, and to make a balanced case for China as an innovator, I am going to start highlighting select Chinese companies that I believe are moving in that direction.

One company to keep on the radar is Hisilicon. Formerly Huawei’s application-specific chip (ASIC) division, Hisilicon has developed a system-on-a-chip (SOC) product line designed for mobile devices. The recent announcement that Huawei will be using Hisilicon chips in its upcoming flagship Ascend P7 mobile phone offers no surprise – on the surface. In fact, a skeptic might suggest that Hisense winning a spot on a a Huawei device is so much internal self-dealing.

The skeptic would be only half right. Huawei’s mobile device team are a loyal bunch, but the company’s leaders are no idiots. To risk the company’s tenuous reputation among consumers in an insanely competitive market merely to engage in some gratuitous dogfooding is uncharacteristic of the firm. Something else is going on, and it is likely that Hisilicon is sneaking up on the better-known MicroTek in its ability to provide the processing power for complex smartphones. If that is the case, Hisilicon is about to pop onto the radars of both Qualcomm and Intel as well.

Before we add Hisilicon to the ranks of mobile chip powerhouses, however, we need to add an important caveat. It makes good sense for Huawei to buy from Hisilicon if it can, but it probably does not make as much sense for other manufacturers. Putting a chip into a phone design involves more than just buying processors off the shelf and sticking them on a printed circuit board. Smartphone testing and development demands close cooperation between component providers, essentially letting everyone in the process into a lot of proprietary secrets.

If I were a smartphone manufacturer, I would look at Hisense SOCs in the same way that I would look at Samsung memory: whatever the virtues of the silicon, I am giving my competitor a close-up look at my mojo. In a world where Samsung and Huawei are pulling out all stops to lead the smartphone business, that’s writing an invitation to my own funeral.

So that is why I am watching Hisilicon. The technical capabilities are growing to the point where the company is likely to become a nexus of innovation, but the commercial challenges it faces are interesting indeed.