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.
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
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.