SMARTPHONES: Dumped by AT&T, Huawei Enters US with Supermodel

Bottom line: Huawei’s decision to go ahead with a US market entry for its latest high-end phone, despite collapse of a tie-up with AT&T, is likely to produce very limited results due to lack of a carrier partner.

Huawei goes solo into US

If you can’t get a serious business partner, at least get a pretty face. That seems to be the message coming from a frustrated Huawei, which has announced it has signed on “Wonder Woman” star and model Gal Gadot as chief experience officer as it prepares to enter the US. This somewhat frivolous move was most likely part of a bigger announcement the company hoped to make for a grander entry to the US in partnership with corporate partner AT&T (NYSE: T).

But as many market watchers may already know, the AT&T deal reportedly collapsed at the last moment for unexplained reasons. The new tie-ups were all set to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking place this week in Las Vegas. While the show went on and Huawei announced plans to release a version of its high-end Mate 10 in the US, with Gadot as product spokeswoman, the AT&T announcement never came. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Meituan Aims at Didi with Drive Into Car-Sharing

Bottom line: Meituan’s move into shared car services is likely to reignite a price war with incumbent Didi, and could be aimed at generating excitement ahead of a mega-IPO later this year. 

Meituan entering shared cars

Just days after reports emerged that car-sharing giant Didi Chuxing would pedal into the shared bike market, new reports are saying that group buying giant Meituan-Dianping is driving into Didi’s own shared car services space. These two stories underscore a theme that comes up time and again in the China tech world, whereby cash-rich companies often pile into hot and trendy sectors where they have little or no experience.

In this case the Meituan move has interesting implications because it could restart a fierce price war that was finally resolved last year when Didi merged with Uber China to take on its current form. Didi has pretty much owned the market since then, though it still faces some competition at various local levels. Now all that could change with the entry of Meituan, which should be flush with cash to launch yet a new round of price wars. Read Full Post…

SMARTPHONES: LeEco Sells Down Coolpad Stake

Bottom line: LeEco’s sell-down of its Coolpad stake is a prelude to disposal of the remainder, and could presage a sale of Coolpad to another smartphone maker later this year.

LeEco sells down Coolpad stake

The unraveling of former online video superstar LeEco (Shenzhen: 300104) continues as we head into the new week, with word the company has sold off a significant chunk of its stake in struggling smartphone maker Coolpad (HKEx: 2369) for a fraction of what it paid. This particular news is significant for a number of reasons, only one of which involves the latest attempt to salvage LeEco. It also has large implications for the future survival of Coolpad, and China’s broader smartphone industry. Some have predicted 2018 will be the year this overcrowded industry finally sees a weed-out that is long overdue.

I and many others have predicted this particular sale for a while, so the actual news doesn’t come as a huge surprise. LeEco purchased about 30 percent of Coolpad in two tranches for a combined $500 million in 2015 and 2016, when it was at the height of its meteoric rise. Coolpad had a relatively sound name at that time, though it was already feeling the effects of intense competition in China’s smartphone space. Fast forward to the present, when the future of both companies is in serious doubt, as each loses big money and struggles under major debt piles. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Didi Chuxing Drives Into Bikes, Brazil

Bottom line: Didi’s Brazilian acquisition looks relatively shrewd and could be followed by more such moves in developing markets, while its purchase of a local bike-sharing firm looks less prudent.

Didi drives into Brazil

China’s homegrown Uber is in a couple of headlines as we round out the first week of the new year,  reflecting its global aspirations and also its desire to expand beyond its original car-based services at home. The first headline has Didi Chuxing making its first major overseas acquisition in Brazil, while the second has it buying what is probably China’s largest shared bike operator behind the leading pair of Mobike and Ofo.

Each of these headlines is interesting though not earth shattering, and in my view probably reflect the fact that Didi has too much cash more than anything else. This is a classic problem for this kind of superstar Chinese startup, which often runs into the unusual problem of raising more cash than it really needs simply because so many investors want to buy in. At the same time, Didi’s own car services business has probably shrunk over the last year, following a clampdown by many major cities and also as the novelty factor wears off for many consumers. Read Full Post…

FINANCE: US Squashes Ant Financial’s MoneyGram Dream

Bottom line: The collapse of Ant Financial’s purchase of MoneyGram reflects growing resistance from a Trump administration willing to mix business and politics in its relationship with China.

Ant’s purchase of MoneyGram sinks

In yet the latest sign that the Donald Trump administration intends to take a hard line towards Chinese M&A, Washington has killed a $1.2 billion deal that would have seen Alibaba-affiliated (NYSE: BABA) Ant Financial purchase US money-transfer specialist MoneyGram (Nasdaq: MGI). This particular development isn’t a huge surprise, since the deal was first announced about a year ago and its closure deadline was extended several times while the US hemmed and hawed on its national security review.

The de facto veto is also just the latest move by a Trump administration that has shown it won’t let US companies in the strategic tech and financial industries be acquired by Chinese counterparts. But this particular veto is also noteworthy because it’s one of the largest so far involving a purely private sector Chinese buyer. Up to now, nearly all the deals to be vetoed have come from buyers with strong links to Beijing, either directly or through government-supplied financing. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Google Launches China AI Lab, Still No App Store

Bottom line: Google’s launch of a China AI lab marks the latest step in its campaign to curry favor with Beijing, which could give it a 50-50 chance of being allowed to sell its Pixel phones and open a China Google Play store in 2018.

Google’s China return like watching grass grow

Chronicling Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) slow march back to China has been a bit like watching grass grow these days. It’s been a painfully slow process, including the latest announcement that the company will open an artificial intelligence (AI) lab here in Beijing.  Put more cynically, one might call this the world’s longest brown-nosing exercise in the brief history of the Internet, due to unique conditions that prompt many to say that Beijing is in some ways creating its own made-in-China 1.1 version of this medium of the 21st century.

That internet version 1.1 includes features like China’s notorious firewall that filters out sites that Beijing doesn’t like for the vast majority of the country’s more than 700 million web surfers. A corollary of that is that anyone who operates an officially-registered website inside China tacitly agrees to abide by the nation’s vague laws that require all operators to self-police their sites for sensitive content. Read Full Post…

E-COMMERCE: Alibaba’s New Retail Goes on Steroids with Grocery Plan

Bottom line: Alibaba’s plan to roll out 2,000 of its high-tech Hema grocery stores looks overly aggressive but typical for the company, and could prove costly if the concept fails to catch on.

Alibaba has big plans for Hema

E-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) is pretty much a carbon copy of its founder Jack Ma when it comes to standing still, in that the concept is completely foreign to both. I’ve been critical of the company in the past for getting into too many things too quickly without a coherent big-picture plan, and that’s what seems to be happening once more with Alibaba’s sudden obsession with finding a formula for the “new retail”.

Alibaba seems quite certain that retailing of the future will consist of some form of high-tech features, alongside traditional retailing concepts such as stores where actual products are sold and people can sit down for a fresh-cooked meal. Alibaba has been wheeling out a number of concepts on this new high-tech retail puzzle over the past year, but the latest plan is the first I’ve seen for an actual widespread roll-out of an actual chain. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Twitter Tweets Indecisively Around China

Bottom line: Twitter’s conservative approach to China reflects a broader indecision at the company that is limiting its growth potential.

Twitter shackled by indecision in China

While social networking giant Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) actively flirts with China in a bid to enter the world’s largest Internet market, the smaller, struggling Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) seems unable to make up its mind. That seems to be the key takeaway from a new interview on the prickly subject of China between Maya Hari, Twitter’s Asia Pacific chief, and Caixin, a well-respected Chinese financial media that also happens to be my current employer.

This particular message seems to be a recurrent theme with Twitter, which, like Facebook, doesn’t like China’s strict self-censorship policies but also finds it hard to ignore such a big market. In Facebook’s case, the company has made it quite clear it’s willing to tolerate China’s self-censorship policies for a chance to build a presence in the market, most likely through a future joint venture with a local partner. Read Full Post…

SMARTPHONES: Xiaomi Eyes IPO, Gets Setback in Europe

Bottom line: Xiaomi’s growing comeback is giving it confidence to launch an IPO plan, as its loss of a trademark case in Europe highlights renewed obstacles it will face in its global expansion.

Xiaomi eyes Hong Kong IPO

Comeback kid smartphone maker Xiaomi is in a couple of headlines as we reach the middle of the week, including one that highlights its return to growth and another that shows the obstacles it will face as it continues with its global expansion. The first headline has media reporting that Xiaomi is planning an IPO as early as next year, as its sagging valuation finally returns to a growth track. The second has the company suffering a setback in Europe related to a trademark dispute with industry colossus Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), highlighting the perils it is likely to face as its global expansion moves into more developed western markets.

It’s still a bit early to say whether Xiaomi’s comeback story has legs, though growing signals are certainly pointing in that direction. I know at least one person who is a Xiaomi fan and goes out of his way to buy their phones, which means that at least some people are coming back to the brand. That’s a shift from a couple of years ago, when the company’s legions of early fans abandoned the brand after it lost its early trendy image and became more known for product problems and other glitches. Read Full Post…

INTERNET: Google, Apple and More Flock to China Internet Pow-Wow

Bottom line: Attendance of Google’s CEO at China’s premier Internet event marks a continuation of its slow return to China, while appearances by top Apple, Qualcomm and Microsoft executives are more expected.

Western tech execs hobnob at Internet conference

As we head into the new week, the headlines are filled with the latest words of wisdom on the future of the Internet from some of China’s leading company chiefs, who were all in the scenic city of Wuzhen for a major conference that kicked off over the weekend. But equally interesting were the guest list of foreign big-wigs in attendance,  which included top executives from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), among others.

This is the third year for the show, which I previously pooh-poohed as a show of pageantry without too much substance. But it does appear to be gaining a bit of traction over time, and I suppose I should grudgingly admit that perhaps China should have a greater say in the development of the Internet and that these major players are at least partly right to be attending in high-profile roles. After all, China is easily the world’s largest Internet market with more than 700 million users. Read Full Post…

TELECOMS: 5G Buzzes Early Into China

Bottom line: A bevy of signals from Beijing indicate China will roll out 5G networks around 2020, in step with major Western markets, providing a boon for telcos, equipment sellers and Internet companies.

China gets serious on 5G

After years of watching China following years behind the West in rolling out its next-generation wireless networks, there are growing signs that the country intends to be a leader rather than a laggard with upcoming 5G service. The latest signal in that drive is coming from the country’s state planner, which has just announced that five or more cities will start to build rudimentary 5G networks starting next year.

All this may sound quite boring for many of my readers who are more interested in high-tech companies than stodgy telecoms carriers. But it really has huge implications for not only China’s big 3 telcos, but also the nation’s booming Internet industry that will become the direct beneficiaries of 5G networks that offer data speeds that are well ahead of what you can get from current 4G technology. Read Full Post…