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Baidu Eye: ‘micro-innovation’ or copying Google Glass?

The tech press reported recently that Chinese search giant Baidu.com was working on a new “smartglasses” device, dubbed Baidu Eye – a computerised headset with a small LCD screen, voice commands, image…

Will China’s copycat culture spawn a host of smartglasses? SewPixie

The tech press reported recently that Chinese search giant Baidu.com was working on a new “smartglasses” device, dubbed Baidu Eye – a computerised headset with a small LCD screen, voice commands, image capture, and face recognition.

Sounds familiar? It should.

Baidu Eye is very similar to Google Glass, which is anticipated to be released to consumers for around US$1,500 by the end of the year.

At first thought to be an April Fool’s joke, Baidu Eye is a real product, albeit still under internal testing.

Representatives of the Chinese search engine – founded in 2000 by Chinese entrepreneurs Robin Li and Eric Xu – claim it is too early to decide whether to release Baidu Eye in any commercial form or not, since they are still exploring the search-related potential of this product.

Initially, you might think: “Just another Chinese copycat!”

But do not underestimate the competitiveness of Baidu Eye if it works as claimed. Plus, it will almost certainly be cheaper than its Google counterpart.

Mainland China: Google’s Waterloo, Baidu’s victory

Before Google’s retreat from mainland China in March 2010, there was a popular catchphrase among Chinese netizens:

If you have an enquiry into internal affairs, please ask Baidu; If you have an enquiry into external affairs, please ask Google.

That being said, Baidu dominated the Chinese search market in 2012, accounting for 78.6% of the market share, and Google only 15.6%.

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Google’s retreat, and especially its recent quiet dropping of its censorship disclaimer, has not substantially affected Chinese netizens’ daily lives, though some have expressed condemnation of the Chinese government’s censorship of the web.

Though commentators were sceptical about Google as a martyr of free speech in the dispute, foreign media and internet companies seeking entry to the Chinese market find themselves struggling between their founding principles and Chinese political values.

In an authoritarian country such as China, where political power is held by a small group of people and maintained by repression, politics has always stood behind business.

This is especially apparent with the Chinese government’s lack of copyright controls plus strict economic and communication controls, allowing an ecosystem of copied technologies to flourish.

These range from pure copycat cash grabs to micro-innovation.

Western social media and their Chinese counterparts. Marc van der Chijs

Copycat culture vs “micro-innovation”

Chinese companies have created a kingdom of indigenous counterparts to Western technology companies that have “innovated” to better serve the needs of Chinese people, albeit under a regime that blocks some Western companies as potentially subversive threats.

The combination of imported ideas and local features has led to a complex indigenous social media ecology which, it must be said, does serve its large user base with truly local features.

Zhou Hongyi, co-founder of Chinese internet company Qihoo 360 Technology, refers to this not as copying, but “micro-innovation”.

“Barack Obama” endorses Blockberry. tuexperto02

The concept of micro-innovation is not about revolutionary business models or technology, but rather customer-experience-oriented tweaks to existing products.

So, realistically modifying business model, improving product’s functionality, or even beautifying a user interface can all be called “micro-innovation”.

Of course, the regime encourages local companies to take any effort to keep pace with Silicon Valley tycoons, and perhaps eventually secure a competitive position in the industry.

Unfortunately, while Beijing has been pushing indigenous entrepreneurs to come up with original ideas to transform the country into a technology powerhouse, copycats seem to win frequently in the market.

That message is underlined by the proliferation of counterfeit Apple Stores or the 2009 release of the Blockberry phone, which can be bought for less than US$90.

Instead of building on healthy competition, indigenous companies choose to simply steal others’ work and underprice it.

In a nation where the economic benefits become overriding aims and the judicial system is not robust enough to protect intellectual property, bad money always seems to drive out good.

Hope mingled with fear

The gap between copier and innovator is narrowing.

There is hope that on the back of quick initial profits, copycat companies might have the financial capability to take at least the limited risk of innovation failure and even invest more in original products' development and research.

There is no doubt the coders behind the copycats are developing impressive skill-sets.

The real deal: Google co-founder Sergey Brin wears Google Glass. Thomas Hawk

That being said, the Chinese government is likely to be uncomfortable with the thought of potential revolutionaries using augmented-reality products, such as Baidu Eye, to poke into the “ugly” reality of the regime, given using Twitter can easily hit a nerve.

Weighing up the economic consequences of censorship is likely to dominate both the government and local companies' decisions about producing truly innovative products.

And it could certainly be argued scientific and technological development is an irresistible tendency, that can be managed only to a degree.

We are expecting the Chinese government to have the political courage and wisdom to reform their systems, and keep the promise of opening up more so as to embrace all merits of technological and societal progresses, which would in turn contribute to the development of the whole nation.

Will that happen? We hope it will.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Foreign companies run into IP problems in China because there are copyright controls rather than a lack of copyright controls.
    If a company fails to register their IP on the Mainland, then it has no reason to complain about IP infringements.
    Articles on IP problems in China rarely if ever mention if companies have any legal basis for complaints.

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    1. Wei Ling Chua

      Freelance Journalist and Author at www.facebook.com/mediadisinformation

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      People should study the world history of copy cat such as how US copy UK, and Japan copy the World, ... before building the economic and technology foundation for self-innovation. Just visit Canton Fair and other international fairs and observe the annual product ideas, and one will notice that, many Western companies are stealing ideas from the Canton Fair. One of my supplier in Indonesia owed by a British man once asked me to get a catalogue from a Chinese company (his competition) in a Hong Kong Fair while he was exhibiting there himself.

      When talking about China, no one should forget that China is still a developing country standing up just 62 years ago after century of colonial and imperial exploitation that bankrupt the entire country. Paper, compass, etc are invented by China and copy cat by the world. Balance reporting is important.

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    2. Yanshuang Zhang

      PhD Candidate at University of Queensland

      In reply to Wei Ling Chua

      Of course, technology has always spread by adopting the innovations of others. Even Steve Jobs got his inspiration for screen menus and the mouse on a visit to Xerox’s research lab in 1979. And I also believe the next Steve Jobs may be now working for some copycat company somewhere in China.

      But the fact cannot be denied that the culture of copying does erode the profit margins of many Chinese entrepreneurs working to develop new products and ideas and provide less incentive to dream up something truly novel.

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  2. George Michaelson

    Person

    blue-and-white china was copied from the chinese by european porcelain manufacture, and in turn lead to a reverse-copy by chinese potteries back in the 18th C. There is nothing new under the sun.

    Having said which, Heads-Up-Display (HUD) is not exactly novel, or new. Google has packaged it, but the essential qualities of the IPR here are slight in the extreme. If baidu is copying google IPR, then google is copying the US military-industrial complex. I suspect the *fundamentals* of HUD and devices like google glass are both innately uncopyable, and the product of government (ie IPR free) funded research, worldwide.

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    1. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to George Michaelson

      I don't know, I don't like the way everything seems to get patented today. Then again, stealing blueprints and reverse engineering should be punishable. But if a 'poor' country (as per inhabitant) develops something it think its citizens will like, even though there's already a more expensive product doing the same somewhere else, then I don't see any reason to scream about it?

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  3. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Many cultures hold to different balances of copying and innovating.

    The underlying contention of this article is that China (Japan, other countries) should all adhere to the US notions of individual achievement based in an extreme of the individualism of the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe.

    One factor in the extremism of the US view is that the US itself used to be the patent pirates of the World a little over a century ago. Nothing like the virtue of the reformed sinner.

    All innovation…

    Read more
    1. Yanshuang Zhang

      PhD Candidate at University of Queensland

      In reply to John Harland

      Yep you are making a point about the cultural imperialism. Since US does lead the other countries in many aspects, most indigenous cultures have been periled in the process of globalization. Though the globalization of culture does not necessarily mean any "colonization of culture" or "cultural hegemony" for that social diversity, economic variety, and political freedom appear to exist, I agree the effects of "hegemony", "rule" or "domination" are still quite perceptible at the personal level.

      I think my underlying contention is, if you want to change the system, you have to enter the system first. And then “师夷长技以制夷” ("learn from the Western advanced technologies in order to resist the invasion of Western powers"- proposed by Wei Yuan in 1844, Qing Dynasty)

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  4. Bob Tan Tze Ming

    Sessional Academic, Media & Communication at Deakin University

    Remix and redux as constant in the challenge for ideological pole positions. Reform - but to what end? To come in second?

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  5. David Elson

    logged in via Facebook

    In this instance I think a Chinese copy product would be a good thing.

    Google has produced Google Glass as a concept and to confirm there is interest in it as a product, they've officially stated they have no immediate plans to commercialize this.

    If competitors start to produce competing version of Google Glass and they become popular... then this would be a significant pressure on Google (and Samsung) to also release these as a mass produced product for consumers.

    In my mind a good thing. Competition always is.

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