The opening sessions of GMIC 2012 were, unsurprisingly, all about mobile. Tencent CEO Pony Ma and Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun are both men with extensive experience in PC-based web development, but if the two of them agreed on one thing this morning, it was that mobile is the future.
Pony Ma’s Keynote
The event kicked off with a keynote address from Pony Ma that was, to be frank, mostly forgettable. Ma spoke about the importance of mobile internet, and the problems inherent with this new model (for example, the danger of security leaks on a mobile phone that’s full of your personal data). He also spoke about Tencent’s Weixin messaging system and how Tencent had the courage to develop a product like that even though it sort of cannibalizes QQ mobile. He also emphasized the importance of product development — “every aspect of management must serve the product” — but mostly, he was kind of boring. “Pony Ma’s keynote is putting me to sleep,” one Weibo user wrote, and I felt his pain.
Discussion with Pony Ma
Things picked up a bit when Pony Ma sat down with Wang Lifen, the founder of Umiwi and a former CCTV anchor, for a little question-and-answer session. Ma spoke here about the importance of being creative, useful, and communicating your ideas quickly in app development. Especially in China, Ma said, “competition is fierce because every idea will have many people working on it [and] if someone has a good idea, others will immediately copy it.”
“The most important thing,” Ma said, “is that the app is useful.” With tons of apps to choose from, users may only give your app a few seconds — if they even download it at all — and if they don’t get it in that timeframe, you’re toast.
Ma told Wang that Tencent is pretty rough with its app development, and that he himself had recently given several apps the axe. Internally, Ma said, one important metric they use is how “sticky” their apps are in early tests. If a team can attract a hundred users to a test, and a week later most of those people are still using it, that’s a good sign. But if a week later usage has tapered off, there’s a good chance that app is not long for this world.
Ma also stressed that app development should be gradual. Using Weixin as an example, he said the Tencent team wasn’t working with a complete, long-term plan. Rather, they started with a basic idea and then worked to solve the most immediate problems one by one, allowing the app to expand and evolve naturally rather than trying to follow a pre-ordained development path.
The most baffling moment of the discussion came when Wang, an iPhone user, asked Pony Ma what he had meant about mobile security problems during his keynote. “I don’t feel like I have security problems,” she said, and Ma was forced to spend a few minutes explaining that viruses and spyware exist in the mobile world too, although they’re admittedly less of a problem for Apple users.
Discussion with Lei Jun
After Pony Ma left the stage, Lei Jun took his place for his own question-and-answer session with Wang Lifen. Asked about development speed, Mr. Lei stressed that even though things move very fast in the internet space, it’s best to move step by step. “When we do a product, we find a need and then expand our offerings bit by bit,” he said. He also pointed out that most of the companies that dominate China’s internet market today — Baidu, Tencent, Sina, etc. — are companies that expanded their products and offerings slowly over the years. He did also say that speed was important, though, and that Xiaomi tries to get basic products out in public fairly quickly so they can test the market response.
Wang pressed Mr. Lei hard about spending models, and was clearly somewhat critical of the ‘burn-money-now-to-make-money-later’ approach to web development. But Lei didn’t entirely agree, holding that it’s more important early on to grab a significant userbase, a big chunk of the market, and worry about profitability later. He used Amazon as an example of a workable model; after gaining a significant share of the market it was able to raise its previously razor-thin margins and start making real money. Similarly, he pointed out, there was a time when it looked like companies like Sina were “burning money,” but in retrospect, the money they spent to get hold of a specific market makes more sense.
Wang asked Mr. Lei about the importance of operating systems, and expressed the hope that China might have an operating system of its own, but Lei Jun didn’t entirely agree. He said he also felt mobile operating systems are very important, but he pointed out that there are very few that have achieved widespread installation bases — even Microsoft hasn’t managed to accomplish that in the mobile space. Making a mobile operating system is no longer technically difficult, Mr. Lei revealed, what’s difficult is building the userbase for it. That is part of what Xiaomi chose to build its MIUI on Android instead of trying to create their own entirely unique OS: “We use a mature platform and build something on top of it.”
Lei also offered some advice to startups: keep it low-key. He said 80% of startups he sees are a mess, and if you make that mess public early on, it can be hard to clean it up later. Moreover, if the product is hyped too much too early, users are inevitably going to be disappointed when the product actually comes out, especially since early product releases tend to be buggy, especially when they’re coming from small teams.
Entertainingly, Wang was able to bait Lei Jun into directly addressing the battle between Xiaomi’s Miliao messaging platform and Tencent’s Weixin. With Pony Ma sitting in the audience just a few feet away, it could have been fairly awkward, but Lei Jun’s charisma and sense of humor took over, and he gave Mr. Ma some face by stating the obvious — “competing with Tencent is hard” — before pointing out that Miliao has 13 million users, that it is picking up around ten thousand new users a day, and that ninety percent of Xiaomi owners are Miliao users, too. With a smile, he pointed out that Miliao came out two months before Weixin.
“So, do you use Weixin?” Wang pressed. “I have used Weixin before, but these days I usually use Miliao,” Lei laughed.
Lei also took a few questions from the audience, telling one fan who asked if Xiaomi was making a tablet that the company could only focus on one or two products at a time — not a yes, but not a no, either. Another attendee asked what Lei Jun thought about the fragmentation of Android devices, and Lei admitted that as an Android developer, that was indeed a pain. But he said he expected it to be less and less of a problem, and that eventually there would only be three major companies making Android phones. “I hope Xiaomi will be one of them,” he said.
This post is part of our coverage of GMIC 2012.