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AllThingsD’s AsiaD Conference 2011: Tech Leaders Try to Figure Out Asia

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In the past week, Hong Kong has become a hotbed of discussion for technology, web trends, and entrepreneurship. Whether that’s a trend that will translate into successful practice here in Asia — well, that was the very question that many set out to answer at All Things Digital‘s AsiaD conference. From October 19-21, heavyweights of the startup and tech industries converged on Hong Kong to discuss this region’s growing markets, dragging an army of doting lightweights along in tow.

21st Century Boy could only follow AsiaD from afar, through live tweets and reports. Why? Tickets cost a whopping US$3,495 dollars – money this poor blogger was unable to produce. But the rewards for those who did cough up the cash were great. Attendees sat in the room alongside a mindblowing roster of top executives and leaders from the digital sphere:

  • Peter Chernin, Founder of The Chernin Group and Chernin Entertainment
  • Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-Founder of Airbnb
  • Jack Dorsey, CEO and Co-Founder of Twitter; CEO of Square
  • Dave Goldberg, CEO of Surveymonkey
  • Al Gore, Ex-Vice President of the United States; Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; So-Called “Inventor of the Internet”
  • Bradley Horowitz, Vice President of Product Management at Google +
  • Kazuo Hirai, Executive Deputy President of Sony
  • Jen Hsun-Huang, Founder, President, and CEO of NVIDIA
  • Dr. Won-Pyo Hong, Executive Vice President of Global Product Strategy at Samsung
  • Andy Lees, President of Windows Phone Division at Microsoft
  • Jack Ma, Chairman and CEO of Alibaba Group
  • John Roese, Senior Vice President of North American R&D at Huawei
  • Tim O’Shaughnessy, CEO and Co-Founder of Livingsocial
  • Jonney Shih, Chairman of ASUS
  • Daniel Shin, CEO and Co-Founder of Ticket Monster
  • Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, CEO and Co-Founder of Joyus
  • Paul Srivorakul, CEO and Co-Founder of Ensogo Group
  • Rose Tsou, Senior Vice President of APAC Region at Yahoo
  • Cher Wang, Co-Founder and Chairwoman of HTC
  • Jerry Yang, Co-Founder, Chief Yahoo, and Director of Yahoo

Here are some highlights from the AsiaD conference that we found particularly interesting…

Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, Surveymonkey’s Dave Goldberg, and Joyus’ Sukhinder Singh Cassidy on Asia’s Startup Scene

There is something special about Silicon Valley, confirmed startup founders Brian Chesky, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, and Dave Goldberg. Despite recent trends pointing toward Asia, the three panelists insisted that the Valley remains the Mecca, providing great opportunity, capital, and talent. At the same time, they all also observed that “pockets of innovation” have now sprouted in emerging as well as developed markets around the world. Chesky cited Berlin as an example of a city with a strong startup community, and said he suspected Hong Kong could become a similar environment.

Singh Cassidy noted that though the Valley often give people their “sea legs,” many of them have begun to move elsewhere after doing so, establishing their business outside of the United States. She was perhaps politely alluding to the “brain drain” phenomenon, particularly skilled Indian and Chinese immigrants who have been returning to their home countries in droves.

But as researcher Vivek Wadha has noted, this isn’t necessarily all bad. In April 2011, he wrote:

Returnees are also exploiting their privileged position in the world economy: building businesses that take advantage of their access to the lower costs, growing markets, and business networks in their home countries but maintaining close ties also with customers, collaborators, and sources of information in the U.S. The accumulation of linkages between entrepreneurs in regions such as Bangalore and Beijing and entrepreneurs in the U.S. offers opportunities for mutually beneficial growth.

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey on Constraints and Being Constrained

In describing Twitter, its creator said he had been aspiring to create a “beautiful experience [which] feels so magical that it fades away.” Such simplicity — Jack Dorsey calls it “constraint” — may be the reason Twitter enjoys such international success, the platform so blank and minimal that anyone with an Internet connection can project their thoughts onto it. So the “accumulation of linkages” in the Asia-Pacific region would certainly be an attractive opportunity for Dorsey to capitalize on.

But when host Walt Mossberg posed the question, ”Is Twitter a big deal in Asia?”, one might say that Dorsey gracefully fumbled his way around the pink elephant in the room, telling a fascinating story about how engaged, web-savvy Japanese users leveraged Twitter early on for their own unique needs:

Yeah, it’s awesome because we started working on Twitter in 2006. And we launched it in 2007 officially. And we saw a massive amount of activity in Japan. So we saw a lot spread to the Philippines, for instance. We saw a lot of activity in India. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger. But Japan has been our largest market. We have an office in Japan now, with a team of about five people, I believe. They’re supporting and making sure we tailor the application to the market and to the culture [...] Back in 2008 we used to have this public timeline that showed every tweet running through the system and every day at a specific time we’d notice an explosion of cat icons in the feed. And what we discovered was that they were tamagotchis from Japan. Someone in Japan had used our API to create them and they became very popular.

Fortunately Mossberg, ever the veteran journalist, was there to call the Twitter chairman out, bluntly asking, “And China?” Here in the video, you can see Dorsey visibly taking a deep “woo-boy” breath as he answers the question.

China? [Ed.: Ha, as if he's actually surprised. As if he hadn't thought about it.] You know, we have a lot of amazing people who want to use the service and are trying to access it in various ways. Um, but, it’s not easy to access in China. There’s a policy against it. [...] The important fact is that we are just not allowed to compete in this market. Look at Weibo, what is happening, certainly the way that people are using it is amazing and we see more and more activities. They can compete in our markets and we’d love to be in there, but right now that’s just not possible.

Dorsey’s statement about Twitter “not [being] allowed to compete in this market”  is, of course, a trade argument against censorship. He ended his panel by expressing his hopes to create a service “that people can communicate freely on, no matter where they are in the world” — a not-so-subtle jibe against China’s Great Firewall, perhaps?

Alibaba’s Jack Ma on China Copycats, Censorship, and Competing When Bored

Of course, Weibo is often dismissed as a derivative of Twitter, and unfairly so. As anyone who’s ever used Sina’s microblogging service will know, there were and still are numerous differences, some of which Twitter went on to integrate themselves — embedded images, for example. Two other distinguishing features in Sina Weibo: the ability to comment directly on a post, and the platform’s pre-existing link to Sina’s massive content portal and user base. One might argue these make microblogging in China a far more interactive experience than Twitter.

Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma even cited Weibo as an example of Chinese innovation when asked by interviewer Peter Kafka whether he agreed with the notion that Chinese businesses are often “imitations of things we’ve seen in the US, to put it politely.” (We might note that 21st Century Boy contributor Tyler Gibson has made a similar argument in the past.) To this Ma replied that he “respected” intellectual property, while qualifying his comment by saying, “But if no one innovates on innovations, that’s a big problem.”

Of course, Ma walks a slippery slope by making such a statement. Hoping to be perceived as a credible force on the global business stage, he faces pressure after his company came under attack earlier this year for allowing 2,300 of its Alibaba.com merchants to commit fraud. The scandal resulted in the resignation of the e-commerce site’s CEO and COO.

Ma went on to commit a similarly China-friendly “balancing act” when asked about censorship. He dismissed Yahoo founder Jerry Yang’s suggestion that the Chinese government stifled entrepreneurship and creativity, saying:

Well, it depends on which angle you see. I think censorship is, yeah, it’s an issue, but it’s not that big [of an] issue. Let’s look at the good side of the Internet. Let’s look at the good things you can do. This is always my optimistic view. If you focus on one side — for example, censors were so serious, you got tied up about that — we start developing the other [sides]. And I think Chinese government is sometimes, you know, they’re getting, they’re getting more and more open. And then in some periods, they get closed. Which I think is very natural for people like me. Sometimes very happy, sometimes not happy. You know? Confidence … Tai Chi …

In a time when the search term “occupy” has been banned, China’s supposedly increased openness is pretty questionable. Earlier this year, a Harvard researcher concluded that 96 percent of page views in China were for websites based in China, making the Chinese Internet, in fact, a massive Intranet. Why encourage competition when the largest user base is already clicking? More important, Ma exclaimed, is pleasing the customer base. “Competition is dessert when you get bored.” Nervous laughter!

Al Gore on Broken Democracy and Global Warming

The ex-Vice President of the United States did not have as much to say about Asia’s emergence, at least directly. Instead, he focused on the other side of that coin, alleging that the United States would not be able to maintain their lead in tech and web innovation if its democracy continued in its “broken” state. He then went on to offer a simplified history of media to prove his point:

I think in many ways the most difficult challenge for the US is in fixing the way in which the American people make decisions … The great strength of America for more than two centuries has been its ability to use the political equivalent of massively parallel processing to come up with better decisions over time than any other nation … About sixty years ago, television surpassed the printing press as the dominant medium of communication. And unlike the public square defined by the printing press, the public square defined by television is controlled by gatekeepers, and access to the conversation that matters requires lots of money. And so, we’ve seen the degredation of American democracy by the rise and the importance of money as a exchange for power.

Despite the rise of the Internet as a tool for democratization, Gore noted that television was still by and far the dominant medium, powered by corporate and government interests. (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky have discussed this in Manufacturing Consent in terms of mass media, arguing that news content is distorted by profit motive.) Gore then expressed his hope that mobile and online convergence can disrupt the current media ecology, as companies begin to think about how to develop smarter technologies for the majority of the world.

Speaking of ecology: Gore recognized that the producers of hardware, often based in the developing world, became the ones to suffer for American innovation. Walt Mossberg referred to the smog in Hong Kong, though he falsely chalked up its main cause — as many often do — to the pollution from Shenzhen. Gore was more on the dot with his environmental assessment, saying that Hong Kong will not solve its smog problem until it removes its coal-burning power plant in Lantau Island (he incorrectly placed it in the New Territories). At the same time, he stressed the importance of using technology to combat the misinformation campaign against environmental destruction.

“I’ve been trying to communicate about this,” he said. “And I wish I could communicate more effectively about this.”

You communicated well, Mr. Gore. At least for an event in which moneyed gatekeepers charged US $3,500 for people to attend. Still, new media has already begun to open up the channels: view this aggregated stream of live tweets from the event.

Do you agree with what these leaders have said about China and the Asian market? How might American companies begin to successfully enter the region? Or would you prefer to see more homegrown innovation?

See other videos from AsiaD here.

Stay tuned for our next post on Hong Kong’s web, tech, and entrepreneurial scene. We’ll discuss our visit to this past weekend’s Startup Saturday 2011 event, featuring Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, 500 Startups’ Dave McClure and Hong Kong’s very own startup community.


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  • Asia fan


    Very interesting article, over 90 percent of Chinese visit websites based in China also because English isn’t so familiar to Chinese people.

    http://asiaotaku.com