Reg man says '拜拜' to Honkers, ponders Asia's future role in tech world

Asia dominates mobile agendas: can it do the same for enterprise tech?

A bright future?

As to whether Chinese firms are getting there, well it’s a mixed picture. KPMG interviews hundreds of technology executives from across the globe each year. In 2012 some 44 per cent said they thought China would supplant Silicon Valley as the world’s leading tech innovation hub, by as early as 2016.

However, by the following year the figure had dropped to 33 per cent.

What’s more, the IEEE’s annual Patent Power scoreboard – which ranks firms according to the size and quality of their US patent portfolios in various categories – has consistently ranked Japanese firms above their Chinese rivals. WIPO revealed a slightly more balanced picture, claiming that in terms of total patents filed in 2013, the US (57,239) came first followed by Japan (43,918) and China (21,516). The only other Asian country in the top ten was South Korea with 12,386.

However, “not all patents are equal”, according to Deloitte China TMT lead Po Hou. He told El Reg that with some R&D departments being paid according to the number of patents they file, volume is not a good indicator of innovation.

“Scale doesn’t necessarily equal power or setting a global agenda,” he argued, adding that Asia is too heterogenous – from its capital markets to language and cultural differences – to nurture the kind of clusters which could incubate the next global agenda-setting tech firms.

“Many Asian companies mistake a smart idea for innovation, which requires focus, structure and non-linear progress. Asian companies typically focus on smaller scale innovation to generate relatively short term results quickly rather than gradual innovation which is more risky,” he argued.

“They also often tend to yo-yo from over confidence to being overly risk averse, which is not good for innovation.”

State interference and regulation in many Asian markets has also distorted competition to snuff out the spark that can often kindle great ideas, although this is changing, he added.

One market where the state has perhaps done most to both help and hinder is China, where strict rules on content and censorship have had undocumented but potentially profound effects. For example, the blocking of Github briefly last year may have “made a generation of developers slightly uneasy about their prospects in China”, according to Charlie Smith of non-profit Greatfire.org.

“I think the area that probably most gets overlooked in this discussion is how censorship limits creative thought. Lively discussion can lead to an exchange of ideas. People get inspired when they see someone doing something that's super creative,” he told The Reg.

“Look at Ai Weiwei. How many Chinese artists have decided that it makes much more financial sense to paint things that foreigners and Chinese want to buy rather than to do what they know could be something truly artistic?”

When it comes to the global technology agenda, it's therefore clear the Asia pivot has already begun. Whether it can lead – or challenge leaders - isn’t clear. What we can say, however, is that as Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent and others invest increasing amounts of cash in Western start-ups and R&D centres from Silicon Valley to Espoo, it’s going to get a lot harder to tell just where innovation comes from and who's leading who.

Maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. ®

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