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Look East

October 2017

If you want to guess how we’ll all be using the internet in the near future you might think that the place to look would be amongst the impossibly cool technology companies that congregate in Silicon Valley (San Francisco) our own Silicon Roundabout (London) or the Cambridge Cluster (Europe’s largest such grouping).

All these places attract highly educated people with large brains and a burning desire to create the next big internet thing.  They garner fortunes from investors and should be on the crest of the internet wave.  However, if you really want to see the future, you must look east, to China, where a consumer internet upheaval has already taken place and left us behind.

To understand why, first remember that the Chinese government blocks most foreign web-based services. The Chinese can’t use Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay and the like, so local versions have popped up to fill the vacuum and have had the huge advantage of starting fresh, learning from the mistakes of the original versions.

Secondly, as the Internet came late to China, most Chinese people have only experienced it through smartphones.  These are full of clever little widgets known as Applications (Apps) that connect you directly and securely to the service you want via the internet.  It might be your bank, or taxi service or window cleaner; I have almost fifty Apps on my smartphone, all regularly used.  We think that we are rather sophisticated to be able to do all this.

That’s vanity, I’m afraid; the new Chinese revolution is making us look out of date.  It is being led by a single super-App called WeChat.  WeChat gathers together any number of different Apps and makes it possible for them all to talk to each other; it is fast becoming indispensable in China, transforming the way people deal with each other and do business.

One expat in Shanghai tells me that he now never carries cash or even a bank card; his life is entirely manged through WeChat on his phone.  In the morning, he logs on to WeChat and orders a coffee; when he passes the coffee shop on his way to work it’s ready and paid for; meanwhile he is having a video chat with a colleague. In the afternoon, he notices that he has been paid by a client and transfers the money to his stockbroker with instructions to buy a particular share – and all this using WeChat. 

That evening he dines with friends; they agree where to meet using the WeChat messaging service, then book a table, order taxis, pay the restaurant bill and share the cost through WeChat.   He even exchanges virtual business cards using WeChat; this in a land which hitherto ascribed almost religious importance to exchanging cards.

There is nothing similar outside China.  My friend has achieved all this with a few taps of the WeChat screen; to mimic it using the fifty individual Apps on my phone would take me ages, if it’s even possible.

One aspect of WeChat is not so appealing.  As the conduit for all this activity, WeChat is collecting an astonishingly detailed record of what its users do, buy and visit, who they communicate with and what they say.  In China, WeChat is obliged share this with the Government, which is chilling; and if such a super-App were launched outside China, who’s to say that all local governments won’t also insist on looking at the data?

However, this clearly doesn’t bother the one billion users of WeChat, and there’s no doubt that the Chinese App designers are way ahead of the rest of the world.

Just think: not long ago, China was perhaps best known for copying our products.  Now we are trying to copy theirs.   Watch this space