Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flight of the Silicon Dragon

Every journalist dreams of writing a book and Silicon Dragon (McGraw- Hill, $24.95) is Rebecca Fannin’s. She interviews a dozen of China’s most successful entrepreneurs and builds a book around her profiles of their roads to success. These are some of China’s movers and shakers in the high tech industry, especially in Internet and wireless communication sectors. All of them are well known inside China but most are relatively unknown to the West. By describing and analyzing the keys to their success, Fannin has provided some lessons learned that are useful to anyone contemplating doing business in China.

As readers go through the 150 pages of easy to read text, they find certain common themes. The first lesson is that a proven business model from the U.S. does not guarantee success in China. Whether it’s Alibaba vs. eBay, Dangdang vs. Amazon or Baidu vs. Google, the local version has first mover advantage and can move quickly to localize the business model to ensure acceptance in China.

The established American competitors initially focused on their U.S. market and paid no attention to China. By the time they are ready for China, they attempt to leapfrog via acquisition of a local company. They then make the mistake of replacing the Chinese management team with culturally deaf and dumb managers from home or even move the headquarters back to the U.S. Thus they further handcuff themselves by removing the ability to react quickly to a fast changing market. The book offers many other gems on rules of conduct in China that readers will find useful.

Alas, the subtitle of this book: “How China is Winning the Tech Race” is unfortunately misleading. With the possible exception of the last chapter on possible technological breakthrough on light emitting diodes based on silicon, other chapters depict no threat of world leading edge, technical breakthroughs. Even the LED development with its vast potential to revolutionize the lighting of the world is at the pre-commercial stage. All the other chapters describe clever, hard working entrepreneurs that have basically improved upon something that already existed.

My personal view of where China will make a world leading edge, technology breakthrough is to look in life sciences and not in electronics. My reason is that China has been investing heavily in R&D. In such cases as stem cell therapy, researchers in China do not have the school of intelligent design as competitor for funding.

Regrettably, this book exhibits too much rush to publish and could have improved its quality with a bit of fact checking and editing. For example, the book says “China accounts for 24% of world production of semiconductors.” This is not true. China accounts for 24% of consumption but barely produces one fifth of what they consume. Albert Yu is described as “now-retired programmer” at Intel. His actual last position was Senior Vice President in charge of Intel’s microprocessor development. The two top foundries in Taiwan are identified as Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and United Microelectronics Corp. UMC is correct but the other, by far the largest and best known in the business is TSMC, where T stands for Taiwan.

Blemishes like those listed above, unfortunately, mar the confidence on the reliability of the information in the book that otherwise could serve as a valuable reference for tracking China’s future high tech development.

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