Gadfly

Who's the Tech Copycat Now?

Chinese companies are setting global trends in technology products and business models.
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Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

It's difficult for many Americans to shake their mental image of Chinese knockoffs peddled on street corners. And for years that described Chinese technology, too. Local companies set up shop by copying eBay, Google, Apple and other foreign technology companies.  

But China has moved way past its knockoff phase. Now Chinese companies are setting global trends in technology products or business models in areas such as supercomputers, technology-enabled transportation, digital payments and artificial intelligence. China's technology companies and its homegrown tech ideas are spreading everywhere. The world is cribbing from China now. 

The U.S. and other countries have seen a flurry of apps that are inspired by Meitu, the Chinese app that pretties up selfie photos. American startups are copying China's fleets of on-demand bicycle rentals for getting around crowded cities. Apple and Facebook are trying to remold their messaging apps in the image of China's ubiquitous WeChat. Before there was Tinder for hookups, there was similar dating app Momo in China. Every company that makes drones is following the lead of China's SZ DJI Technology.

The influence of Chinese tech in the world arguably started with telecommunications equipment company Huawei Technologies Co. It branched first into Europe and forced stodgy local rivals such as Sweden's Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent of France to cut prices and copy Huawei's more advanced methods of updating older gear with fresh software. (Some European officials have said Huawei has benefited unfairly from Chinese government subsidies, a claim the company has denied.)

More recently in India, Chinese smartphone brands including Xiaomi and Vivo are among the top sellers in the rapidly growing Indian smartphone market, and China's e-commerce king Alibaba is helping digital payments and online shopping catch on quickly there.

China's tech titans are trying to conquer most of the world. The U.S., however, has been tough for many Chinese tech companies to crack, and many have simply stayed away for now. But some younger Chinese companies are setting up shop in America first. 

If you have a tween in your household, you know Musical.ly, an app that lets people make smartphone videos of themselves lip-syncing to popular songs. The Shanghai-based startup essentially took features and ideas that were already popular in China but hadn't hit U.S. shores yet. One tech investor said Musical.ly might not have survived in China's deadly competitive web-streaming market, but America was a blank slate. 

And even U.S. companies are taking proven Chinese tech advances and applying them at home. Apple would never say so, but a new ability for people to text in iMessage to send money to their friends or babysitters is borrowed from popular features in China.

YouTube has been pushing a virtual tip jar for people to make money when they stream videos of themselves live on the Google-owned site. People can pay a few dollars or more to get noticed by enhancing the comments they write about the video -- adding a splash of color, and making sure the response stays at the top of the video comment flotsam. It may sound silly, but these kinds of digital rewards are how live streaming has made millionaires out of some Chinese video stars. 

It's tough to generalize, but China's growing influence on the tech world stems from a few factors. First, the country's more than 730 million smartphone-crazed internet users are an ideal proving ground for technology, and new ideas are stress-tested mercilessly. As soon as one bike rental company sprung up, for example, many others followed, and only the best will survive.

China's government has also spent oodles to support the domestic technology industry, and officials throw the government's considerable weight behind innovations. Some technology executives are betting driverless cars may catch on first in China because the government seems more receptive to allowing the technology on public roads.

Of course not every technology that thrives in China will translate to the rest of the world. Paying with smartphones remains a niche activity in the U.S. because credit cards are ubiquitous and easy to use. But even if most Americans will never use WeChat or a Xiaomi smartphone, China's influence is reshaping the technology everyone uses every day. 

Think about how Japanese automakers such as Honda introduced low-cost reliable U.S. models in the 1970s, and forever changed the American car industry. That is similar to what is happening now in technology. Welcome to the era of technology Sinofication.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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