China: Winning the App War?

Mobile technology in China runs largely parallel to the rest of the world.  Here, there are rarely Google searches; instead, we use Baidu (Google searches account for less than 2% of the total in China; Baidu searches capture more than 65%).  We don’t use Ebay; instead it’s Taobao.  There’s no Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp; these are all rolled into WeChat.

The parallel world exists here in part because of the Great Firewall of China.  It also exists because platforms built to support primarily Chinese language inputs need a different DNA than those built to support primarily English language inputs.  Finally, we have a parallel tech world here because of different interests, assumptions, and expectations of Chinese consumers.

One result of this is a handful of billion dollar tech firms that few Americans have heard of.  The coolest, most desired jobs for young Chinese are at companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei.  To my friends in NYC, these sound more like Disney characters than competitors to Apple and Microsoft.

Another result of living in a parallel tech world is I get to see the breakneck speed of innovation at Chinese companies.  There are some stunningly useful apps in China that either blow the U.S. equivalent out of the water, or are so unique that they have no parallel back home.  One example: China’s versions of Uber.  (Uber exists in China, but it is struggling).  I use DiDi to call for a car.  It is voice activated, allowing me to record a quick message to the driver.

But my favorite new app is Baidu Translate.  I can photograph something and let the magic of a Baidu algorithm find the word for the object in the photo in both English and Chinese.  Yesterday, I forgot how to say “humidifier” in Chinese.  So I snapped a photo of my humidifier, and, presto, Baidu told me how to say it (加湿器, for the curious).  Brilliant!

Of course, it’s more fun to talk about the fails than the successes.  Check out this tumblr and see how Baidu thought a chicken was a flying squirrel, and thought Sun Yatsen was Elvis Presley.


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