Bottom line: Google’s new launch of a China-based developers site marks a partial return to the Chinese web, but its higher-profile return to the consumer market with a Chinese Google Play app store probably won’t come until next year.
After more than a year of speculation, global search leader Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is finally back in China. Or at least sort of. The tech world is certainly buzzing about this latest development, which comes with Google’s launch of a China page for locally-based developers. For anyone who wants to look, the page itself is at developers.google.cn, and is all in English. But proving its China credentials, the page also has a QR code that lets users follow Google Developers on WeChat.
So, what does all of this mean? The development does seem relatively significant, since this launch appears to show that Google has officially received Beijing’s blessing to develop new business in China, in this case by pursuing local developers. Up until now, Google’s only presences on the China web were its google.cn page, which has a live link to its Hong Kong page, and also its Google translation service.
We’ll explore the broader implications shortly, but first let’s review the latest headlines that come from a developer conference that Google held on Thursday in Beijing. (Chinese article) The conference marks at least the company’s second major event in China this year, following its opening of an experience center in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen back in July. (previous post) Some might say this staging of this latest event in the Chinese capital might have some symbolic significance, since Shenzhen is much further away and just across the border from the capitalist enclave of Hong Kong.
Both meetings were presided over by Google’s Greater China chief Scott Beaumont, who happens to be a China hand and speaks Mandarin. About 2,000 people attended, and Google executives said they will start to introduce some Mandarin into the local Chinese developers site that is now all in English. There’s not much more to the reports, though Google’s executives did manage to utter the word “innovate” quite a few times in their remarks, using a word that has become a favorite of Beijing leaders these days.
It’s certainly no surprise that Google is trying to curry favor with Beijing. Such an approach would have been surprising 7 years ago, when Google angrily shuttered its China-based search site due to unhappiness over Beijing’s strict self-censorship policies. But since then the company has been having second thoughts. The biggest reason for the turnaround is the rapid rise of smartphones over that period, and Google’s place in the market through its free Android operating system that powers the big majority of those smartphones.
I’ve written about numerous signs that Google was preparing a return to China over the last year, including reports that it was laying the necessary infrastructural groundwork and also various other behind-the-scenes steps it was taking. This kind of high-profile event also shows the company wants to be in the market, and is just waiting for the right moment when Beijing finally gives the green light.
I previously predicted that Google’s China return would come this year, but now it looks like time is rapidly running out. Perhaps I could argue I was partly correct, since this launch of a China-based page does represent a return of sorts. Honestly speaking, I don’t think that Google wants to return to the China search business due to Beijing’s controversial self-censorship policies. But perhaps it will reopen a China-based search page as part of its return to show Beijing that it has learned its lesson, in a sort of eating crow.
What Google really wants is to get more ingrained in China’s vibrant Android ecosystem, where it could potentially make lots of money by helping developers create new Android-based apps and services. From a public perspective, its main objective on that front would be the opening of a China version of its Google Play store, and also perhaps eventually launching a payment service similar to Apple Pay.
This latest developer’s conference does indeed appear to show that Google is again inching towards those goals. I probably shouldn’t make anymore predictions after my last one didn’t really come through, or at least probably won’t happen before the end of 2016. But in this case it really does seem quite likely that Google will finally get its coveted permission to open a China app store sometime in 2017, and could also relaunch a China search page to show its repentance.