INTERNET: Google Advances in China on AlphaGo Play

Bottom line: A high-profile China visit by Google CEO Sundar Pichai reflects warming ties between the company and Beijing, and presages a probable launch of the Google Play app store and Nexus phones in China by the end of this year.

Google’s Pichai in high-stakes game with Beijing

In a move that looks like something from a high-stakes chess game, Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) CEO is taking advantage of the huge publicity surrounding a recent triumph of his company’s artificial intelligence (AI) to make a high-profile visit to China. Google is hardly a welcome name in the country, following its high-profile spat in 2010 over Beijing’s strict self-censorship policies that prompted it to shutter its China-based search service.

Since that blow-up, however, Google has more recently been gingerly tip-toeing back to China. Reports through much of last year indicated the company was making necessary preparations to launch a Chinese version of its Google Play app store, possibly in hopes of selling its Nexus brand of smartphones in the world’s largest mobile market. 

Against that backdrop, this new visit to China by Google’s recently named CEO Sundar Pichai looks like a high-profile effort to win back some goodwill from Beijing that the company lost after the spat 6 years ago. Pichai and the Google he represents are quite different from the company that clashed with Beijing in 2010. Since that time, Google has reorganized and its founders are now more linked to a new parent company called Alphabet Inc.

Pichai is also new to his current position, being named as the first CEO of the new Google last summer following the reorganization. Following that overhaul, Google co-founder and former CEO Larry Page, who became the new Alphabet CEO, said he was handing over the issue of Google in China to Pichai, who had no history of hostile relations with Beijing.

With all that background in mind, let’s look at the latest reports that say Pichai made his inaugural trip to China as Google CEO in a cultural exchange involving the ancient Chinese board game of Go, or weiqi in Chinese. (English article; Chinese article) The visit comes just weeks after Google’s artificial intelligence computer AlphaGo captivated China for a week when it beat South Korean champion Lee Sedol by a 4-1 margin in a highly publicized 5-game match-up.

Chinese media said that Pichai was in Beijing to visit the Nie Weiping Go School, and that he interacted with some 30 students at the school. The school plans to issue its own formal challenge to AlphaGo by the end of this year, according to another Chinese media report. (English article)

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As someone living in China, I can personally attest to the huge publicity that the AlphaGo story attracted here a few weeks ago. The story was in the news nearly every day, as Chinese followed the steady stream of defeats that AlphaGo handed to South Korea’s Lee. Lurking in the background was China’s own Go master, Ke Jie, who previously dismissed AlphaGo’s ability but after the match said he wasn’t so sure anymore.

With all that recent history in mind, Pichai’s new China visit does seem quite savvy and opportunistic, designed to raise Google’s profile and image in the public imagination. Pichai isn’t the first Google executive to visit China since the 2010 blow-up with Beijing. But his visit is definitely far more high-profile than one by former CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2013, which was largely absent from state-run media at that time. (previous post)

There’s no word about any other planned stops on Pichai’s current China tour, but I suspect he may pay a quiet visit to the country’s telecoms regulator and possibly some Internet officials during the trip. Reports last year indicated that Google would like to re-enter China’s less controversial market for smartphones and apps, riding on the coattails of its free Android operating system that powers most Chinese smartphones. This latest trip appears to show he’s getting a positive reception from Beijing, and I would reiterate my previous predictions that Google is likely to launch an app store and also possibly its Nexus phones in China by the end of this year.

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