Over 20 years ago when I first came to China to work I had a frustrating time as communication systems were not developed - there were no mobile phones, fax machines needed to be registered with the local government and internet connectivity was non-existent. Communication with the rest of the world was really only relegated to the morning and night when I could return to my hotel or office and get access to the necessary devices to send a message.
Fast forward to now and most business people in China carry two, if not more mobile phones. In fact, China, and Asia as a region, has more mobile phones than personal computers. Apple and Samsung see this as one of their most important markets. With its open system, Google's android operating system maintains a significant majority of market share in Asia.
Additionally, there are many low cost manufacturers (Chinese 'shanzai brands' or 'knock-off' mobile phone equipment manufacturers) who use the android platform to produce very affordable smart phones.
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Combine the availability of phones, accessibility of an open operating system and the 3G speed of the telecom networks and the result is an ecosystem of the most connected individuals in one of the most dynamic areas in the world.
This ecosystem is the driving force between many entrepreneurial efforts. WeChat, a chat product from internet services company Tencent launched in 2011, has seen phenomenal growth; signing up over 300 million users in less than 18 months. WeChat, however, has another distinction of being directly responsible this year for the first decline in Chinese New Year text message volume.
More relevant, though, WeChat has created a platform for business. A significant portion of the WeChat users are business people who create chat groups to keep in touch with colleagues, customers and potential partners.
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Microblogging site Sina Weibo has also successfully created a marketing platform for individuals and businesses to develop and engage in a conversation with their customers. Combined, Weibo and WeChat have over a billion users. Most interestingly, though, in a culture where building personal relationships is the corner stone of any opportunity, these two companies are proving that mobile relationships are not only possible, but also potentially quite lucrative.
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WeChat, Weibo and Kakao Talk (a chat application similar to WeChat) in Korea, are leading this shift from fixed line/PC to wireless/mobile devices.
Business users are becoming more comfortable with the mobile phone as a business tool instead of just a communication device. And the chat function introduced by these companies has very quickly become as important as a phone call or traditional text message in business circles.
And this is just the beginning. Given the ever growing reliance on mobile phones, the prevalence of lower cost smartphone devices and the ability to 'mobily' maintain business relationships, provides a strong opportunity in developing cloud based mobile technologies to help companies manage their teams.
This convergence of cloud (Internet based services) and mobility now allows developers to build robust solutions where the mobile phone is the primary device. In addition to the chat functions, businesses can now download mobile sales force management solutions, virtual call center platforms where workers can effectively work from a tea shop, logistic tracking solutions that are exclusively mobile phone based. Amazingly, a company in Shanghai is releasing an app with video streaming where you can now choose your pig before you buy it.
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Asia already has the most mobile phone users in the world, now it is time for the software solutions to catch up with the market opportunity. Unlike the West, Asia will develop management solutions that are mobile and cloud based, yet again leap frogging western countries that are still focused on office based solutions.
Is it possible that Asia will be the first region to support and build a truly mobile business environment ? I would be surprised if this does not happen. Asia has already caught up in terms of the hardware, it is entirely possible that software will be the next area where Asia can leapfrog the West.
Justin Mallen came to China over 20 years ago and has been building businesses since then. Moving from garments to hi-tech, Mallen founded Silk Road Telecommunications in 2000 and has grown the business to nearly 1,000 people with offices in China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Mallen is a member of the YPO.
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