A look at the Chinese technology companies poised to dominate the world
As we walked into Huawei’s offices in Shenzhen, southern China, our English guide paused a moment. “When the FT came here, they wrote a story about how there were beds under the desks and this meant that everyone must be working incredibly long hours,” he said. “Quite wrong.”
As we soon discovered, it’s not that there aren’t beds under or beside the desks. There are. But the idea that the staff slog long into the night isn’t correct. Instead, the beds are used for lunchtime snoozing between 1pm and 2pm – a Chinese version of the siesta.
But midday naps among the workforce do not mean that Huawei is not a relentlessly aggressive competitor – it is one of a number of homegrown Chinese technology companies that are rapidly outgrowing their home market and are now seeking – or already achieving – dominance in the rest of the world. These are the companies set to become the biggest business brands of the future:
The Beijing-based company – slogan “For Those Who Do” – shot to prominence when it bought IBM’s PC business in 2005. The idea that the ThinkPad, beloved of American business people, would be made by a Chinese company caused unease at first; the $1.75bn (£1.04bn) purchase attracted intense regulatory attention.
Lenovo is now the world’s largest maker of PCs, ahead of the former leader, US-based HP, in units if not quite by revenue. And it keeps acquiring what look like worn-out US technology businesses.
In recent months it has bought both IBM’s server business (for $2.3bn) and the lossmaking Google-owned Motorola smartphone business (for $2.9bn). The latter move made it the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, behind Samsung and Apple, with a combined share of 6% of the world market. But its ambitions are far bigger.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek, in an in-depth profile of the company, depicted it as a sort of technology scavenger, jumping on items that others had discarded. “For Lenovo, the competition has shifted from HP and [PC makers] Acer and Dell to [smartphone makers] Samsung and Apple,” Ex-IBMer and Lenovo chairman William Grabe told Bloomberg: “Lenovo wants to be a hundred-billion-dollar company, and you’re not going to get there by improving PCs or even servers.”
But it could be a hard road. Lenovo’s overall operating profit margin was just 2.1% for its 2013/4 financial year; the analyst Richard Windsor points out that its total operating profit in the just-gone quarter, of $231m, is about the same as Motorola has been losing while under Google’s wing. If Lenovo can’t turn that business around, that marriage could turn ugly.
It’s pronounced “Hoo-wah-way”, and is the second-largest provider of telecoms network equipment in the world, behind only Sweden’s Ericsson. Total group sales in 2013 were US$39bn, and it has so far received 36,311 patents – with many of the most recent relating to 4G/LTE high-speed network technologies. It is also funding work at the University of Surrey to develop 5G.
Despite its success supplying telephone backbone networks, Huawei has been dogged by suspicions within western governments that its systems could be used to secretly tap networks on behalf of the Chinese government. The US and Australia have banned it from public-sector contracts, and the US House of Representatives intelligence committee said in 2012 that private-sector companies should be informed about the alleged threat.
That is because the company was founded by Ren Zhengfei, an ex-officer of China’s People’s Liberation Army. But the company says the claims are baseless. Its board includes westerners, and it has an unusual leadership system in which three board members take the chief executive role on a rotating basis.
Huawei’s ambitions are global. China generated just over a third of revenues in 2013, but Europe, the Middle East and Africa were larger (36% against 35%), and grew by over 9%. It is also looking to expand beyond phone networks, into system configuration for large businesses – and also has ambitions in smartphones, where it shipped 52m units in 2013, up 60%, roughly at breakeven.
In Europe, its sales have more than doubled in the past year as price-sensitive buyers go for cheaper handsets, unworried by brand, according to research by Kantar ComTech.
The Chinese smartphone and tablet maker sometimes called “China’s Apple” shot to international notice in August 2013 when it poached Hugo Barra, then the head of product management for Google’s Android, to lead its international business development. Xiaomi (say “shower”, but replace the second syllable with “mee”) has built up an eager following in China for its smartphones, which are developed and released at a frantic rate and sold in even more frantic online sales.
The company is expanding beyond China to Indonesia, has changed its name to “Mi” (far simpler for non-Chinese to pronounce), and Barra says it will soon enter India, where smartphone sales are exploding.
The company had a triumphal April in China, outselling Samsung – normally the top seller – for the second time according to Kantar. If it can keep repeating that, it might become a serious threat to all its rivals.
Based like Huawei in Shenzhen, it is the creator of the widely used Tencent QQ messenger app – with more than 650m active accounts – well ahead of WhatsApp (bought for $19bn by Facebook) with its 500m or so users. Tencent is the fifth-largest internet-only company in the world (after Google, Amazon, Facebook and eBay) but is hardly known outside Asia.
Yet it’s listed on the Hong Kong stock market, where its market value is around $150bn. Why hasn’t it been heard of outside China and Hong Kong? Principally, because it hasn’t begun trying to compete on smartphone platforms beyond those borders. It generates plenty of revenue through its QQ web portal, multiplayer online games, PaiPal auction site, and smartphone apps like the quirkily named Dididache Taxi system (for finding taxis for would-be passengers). The latter is the biggest in China with more than 40 million registered users. Its sheer financial heft means that if it flexes its muscles beyond China, it might put car hire companies such as Uber or Hailo into the shade.
China’s most-used search engine isn’t Google; in fact the US company has a single-digit share of search in the country. Instead it’s Baidu, founded in 2000 by Robin Li – a former software developer in New Jersey who in 1996 received a patent for a web search ranking technology (Larry Page and Sergey Brin were doing the same in California at the time; their patented system became Google). He built a search engine which complies with the Chinese government’s strict (and often changing) rules and now has almost two-thirds of the search market there – a gigantic market of more than a billion users.
Does Baidu intend to grow beyond China? A 2007 attempt in Japan failed; since then it has set up research centres and offices in Singapore, Australia, India and Brazil. The US might be next. Baidu is taking things cautiously – but that doesn’t mean its ambitions aren’t large.
Another Shenzhen-based firm, ZTE makes both network equipment and the handsets and software to connect to it. According to research company IDC it is one of the world’s 10 biggest smartphone makers – and jostling for position with Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi. Like Huawei, it has faced suspicion from western governments, who worry that it might be undermining their infrastructure. ZTE has always denied such charges.
Most recently it has drawn attention because it is making a super-cheap smartphone that runs the Firefox OS – based on the web browser. Some think its low price could drive huge sales in emerging markets; but even if it doesn’t, ZTE can offer Android-based handsets to capitalise on the chance.
Alibaba is the reason why the US web portal Yahoo may have a negative market value. Yahoo owns a 24% stake in Alibaba, a business-to-business e-commerce company that is used for huge numbers of transactions inside China: it is said to be responsible for the contents of 60% of the parcels delivered there; its Alipay service for about half of online payments in China. Its 2013 revenues were $7.5bn.
Alibaba’s decision in September 2013 to seek a US flotation put Yahoo’s stake into sharp focus: its total value could be around $168bn, which would value Yahoo’s stake at $40.3bn. But Yahoo’s market value is just $35bn – once you subtract the Yahoo Japan business (around $9.3bn worth), you’re left with a value for the US and European business that’s negative. Obviously, Yahoo could cash out – but it’s an uncomfortable situation to discover that what was once a tiny investment has now outgrown the parent.