~ read.

Clash of the Internet Clans

Stepping out of the plane in Shanghai, I realized the only thing that is still working on my phone is Wechat. The apps I relied on for daily activities, such as maps, news, email, social network, file sharing, even Chrome kept on crashing or complaining about 'network connectivity problem'. I had to download a bunch of apps, starting with the very 'app market' itself, to get my phone to be 'smart' again. What a pain.

Like most people, I immediately associated this pain with the blocking of major internet giants by the great firewall. Further, consider the 'standard' tools which every developer in Silicon Valley is using as if they are the soil that flowers grow on, then the landscape of mobile apps in China is like an environment on another planet. The water taste different, and the soil contains much unknown substances. No Google apps for business, no Facebook login and advertising. Even the ones that worked, like Evernote and Amazon, were really slow.

But it's on this barren planet that the local Internet startup scene is blossoming at its full height. The 14 biggest deals of China in 2014 alone, which aggregate to 5.1 billion US dollars [1], are comparable to the top 10 deals in Silicon Valley that aggregate for 5.57 billion USD [2]. The number of deals in Silicon Valley and San Francisco combined were 1305 [3], which is about 70% of China's number in 2014 (1878 deals) [4]. Judging from the sheer number of investments, China is betting on the future of Internet no less than Silicon Valley.

And yet if look closely, the two planets are diverging as fast as the investments are propelling them. Chinese internet startups are forced to reinvent some wheels, which were generally made available by one of the Internet giants, had the Great Firewall not blocked them. That in turn fed more startups to come to this building frenzy, since they are building the Internet infrastructure from ground up. Local replacements for Webfonts, CDN, server clusters, and other numerous services, which are usually “a swipe of credit card away” convenient in the U.S., are still rapidly changing and improving. Young but vigor, they are growing happily with other internet services within China.

What has been a frequent topic among the privacy-conscious programmers is de-Googling from their daily life. Calendar, email, text messaging, analytics, maps, chrome, there are often stories of going back and forth. But if you truly want to sanitize Google from your life, come to China, since NOTHING from Google will work. Same goes for Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox. Amazon could work, but the local ecommerce giants can get your orders in front of your door step faster than Amazon's web pages take to load (might be exaggerated a little). What is the point?

This seems to be a familiar situation that we had. Without Silicon Valley, the Chinese can still get their utility bills paid, bank account watched, and fresh hot soup delivered. Without China, the others can still run Tinder and Angry Birds just fine. But they will try to overtake each other at one point, since we all know the total sizes of the markets will not grow infinitely. The USSR and US, after eliminating their common enemies, will become rivals themselves and fight to the end. I truly wish our internet will not get flushed down this path.

The diversion will also require developers to choose the 'red or blue' pill at some point, since the infrastructure and the environment are different from the roots. And to survive and thrive, changing skill sets seems to be required. When the crash between East and West happens, which side would you take?
I hope this day will never come.


[2] https://www.cbinsights.com/blog/largest-tech-deals-2014-silicon-valley-new-york-boston/

Thanks to Shi Yan for reading draft of this.