When Tencent first launched WeChat back in January, 2011, nobody predicted that the bare-bones, mobile-only messenger was just five years away from being an ecommerce and social media Juggernaut with well over half a billion users.
The last half decade saw China’s former social media giants get used to living in WeChat’s shade. Renren, “China’s Facebook,” has seen its valuation crumble to a fifth of its 2013 high as users flocked to more feature-rich apps. And Weibo, while hardly obscure, has long since been eclipsed by WeChat’s gargantuan user base.
What lessons can be learned from WeChat’s rise? To find out, we need to roll the clock back to the stone age year of 2010, when messaging apps were novelties in a world of SMS texts.
There are nearly 700 million internet users in China, and they don’t let their connections go to waste. The country is a downloading, WeChatting, ecommercing powerhouse, and it has the statistics to prove it.
We sorted through the numbers put out by some of China’s biggest internet companies, and brought them down to scale. This is an internet minute in China. The country does in 60 seconds what some would only do over a day, week, or more. Not too shabby.
You don’t have to go back very far in history to find a time when virtually no one in Myanmar had internet access. As recently as 2009, less than one percent of the 50 million people in the country had either a smartphone or home internet access.
But starting in 2011, the country’s tech went into hyperdrive. Between 2011 and 2012, the percentage of people with cellular subscriptions nearly tripled. Between 2012 and today, it has gone up almost nine-fold.
Right now in North Korea, someone is tapping away on an iPhone. He or she can share photos, video chat, and – if they were so inclined – read Tech in Asia. In the same country, at the same time, there is someone whose interaction with electronics begins and ends with a radio.
Writing about North Korea from outside of the country can feel like describing a room just by peering at it through a keyhole – even if you see something, it’s impossible to get enough context for it to make any sense. When it comes to tech, the nominally Communist society is wildly unequal. Who you are – your job, your education, your location – means the difference between a 3G-connected iPhone in your pocket and having never even heard of the internet.
The first recorded instance of a Chinese person seeing a bicycle is in the spring of 1866. Bin Chun, a diplomat on a political trip to Europe following the end of the Second Opium War, spotted one on the streets of Paris and it made quite an impression.
“On avenues, people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe,” Bin Chun wrote in his travel diary. “They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet. They dash along like galloping horses.”
The modern bicycle had been invented only a few years prior. Out were the gigantic front wheels of the impractical penny farthing, and in were the low-profile, gear-and-chain powered bikes of today.
There are 17 pianos in Zhang Zhenyu’s office, with no extra room for an 18th. They are lined up back to back and side to side, each in various states of assembly – some look ready to be rolled out on stage, while others have their strings, hammers and metallic guts cracked open on display. Zhang moves from piano to piano, hitting a key, hearing a note and pulling out a wood-handled wrench that he deftly locks into one of 200 small metal pins to adjust the tone.
For the inexperienced, the process is daunting – each piano is a rat’s nest of small, easily confused bits, let alone the training required to spot a good note from one that is ever-so-slightly flat.
“A piano has more than a thousand parts, and each one can cause unwanted noise if it’s loose,” Zhang says. But the 37-year-old knows exactly which pin to turn, and how to turn it. That’s because he has been carefully trained for his job as a piano tuner, one of the few professions traditionally open to China’s blind.
For the first time in my life, I wish I owned a fanny pack. It would have completed the look. I’m standing at a busy intersection in Yu Yuan, watching Western tourists, maps in hands and baseball caps on heads, filtering through the streets. I’ve got a camera over my shoulder – a nice touch. I’m not here to take any pictures, though: I’m here to get scammed.
“Hey, boy!” And so it begins. “Take my photo?” A skinny, smiling 20-something man is thrusting his phone towards me.
He stands with his friend, a shorter man in a floral shirt. I snap a photo of Smiley and Floral in front of a drab building – not exactly a great shot. I give the phone back, and he doesn’t bother to check the photo.
What do a cheap Shanghai convenience store and a small Guangdong village have in common? Here are some hints: it’s one of the fastest-growing markets in China. It’s particularly popular with newly moneyed city dwellers. It’s all over social networks like WeChat and QQ. No, it’s not a new smartphone or app: it’s crystal meth.
It’s a Wednesday night, and we’re in a generic Shanghai convenience store in the former French Concession. Two young shop attendants are standing behind bubbling vats of sauce-soaked skewers. In the opposite corner, a stocky man lingers by the snack counter. He’s been there all evening. He was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow. He is the local drug dealer, at your service: and you can bet he has “bingdu” (冰毒), or “ice.”
His supply could have come from any number of places, but there’s a decent chance it was produced near the village of Boshe, in Guangdong Province.
You’re standing in line at a coffee shop, ready to order, when your cellphone goes off. It’s from your bike: ‘Someone is stealing me!’ Ignoring the eager barista, you burst from the cafe to spot a bike thief in action. He panics, and bails.
Or let’s take another scenario. You click your helmet into place, hunch over the handle bars, ratchet up to a high gear and begin pedaling so fast it feels like your knees will hit you in the nose. You fly from Waibaidu Bridge on the North Bund to Yan’an Lu on the South in record time. You pull over, catch your breath and check your phone. Damn! A good speed, but the app says another cyclist has done better.
Those are the type of situations that the people at Basic Conception are hoping will attract business. After 10 months of research, design and development, the Shanghai-based start-up is getting ready to present its technology-equipped ‘BiCi’ smart bike to the world.