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CNBC's Davos 2011: Global Power Shift Coming In Tech

As demand for technology rises in the larger emerging markets, U.S.-based companies will find more opportunities to export their products overseas.

Chinese students play online computer games at an internet cafe in Hangzhou.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese students play online computer games at an internet cafe in Hangzhou.

But with innovation also on the rise in these regions, lower barriers to entry, and cultural factors that favor homegrown companies in some industries, the expanding consumer marketplace also creates challenges that could chip away at the United States’ dominance of the technology industry.

Jeffrey Donlon, portfolio manager of the Manning & Napier Technology Series Fund, says several emerging markets are in the middle of a long-term shift from primarily export-driven to consumer-driven economies. That transition is driving the need for new technology companies to serve consumer demand.

“Consumer-driven aspects of emerging market economies will become a larger percentage of their GDP,” say Donlon. “A great example is travel. There’s a lot of innovation occurring in China and India around the travel space that’s technological, leveraging the Internet, data center, and IT systems-based technologies to create more efficiencies in that industry.”

The ability to innovate is the key.

As Warrant Tennant, portfolio manager of the Invesco Technology Fund, points out, the United States has dominated the global tech sector because it’s been the leader in innovation—whether it’s personal computers, software, or the Internet.

Much of the advances in those areas, however, has dramatically driven down the cost of innovation in general.

“Five years ago, let’s say the cost and knowledge base that was necessary to set up a medium-sized company up and running was $10 million to $20 million,” Tennant explains. “Today, the cost is one-fifth to one-tenth of that. Because of the Internet, you don’t necessarily need all the installed licensed software you needed before—you can use software as a service. Before you had to have your own storage area network and have people who had the expertise to manage it. Today, you can lease space in a data center extremely cheaply and have them handle all of it for you.”

Formulas for Success

The Internet has provided the biggest opportunity for new technology leaders in developing markets. As developing nations produce more technology consumers, the opportunities for online commerce and online advertising is on the rise. And companies involved in online commerce typically follow the lead established by U.S.-based companies.

Davos 2011 - See Complete Coverage
Davos 2011 - See Complete Coverage

Although there are opportunities for U.S.-based companies in these growing markets, homegrown players are able to deliver a product tailored to their region’s unique needs.

Donlon points to a pair of recent IPOs from China’s Internet sector as evidence of that thriving market—Youku.com, a YouTube-like video hosting service, and E-Commerce China Dangdang , a regional version ofAmazon.com.

“You’ve seen Google dominate search in the United States, so Baidu starts in China and says they’re going to be the dominant Chinese search company,” Tennant says. “China’s a different market, people are going to want something local that’s attuned to the Chinese populace."

Tennant adds the same situation with MercadoLibre, which basically is the eBayof Brazil.

There’s similar growth in the communications equipment sector. Tennant notes that the governments of both developed and emerging nations consider a well-connected populace to be a competitive advantage. As emerging regions build out their network infrastructure, new players have emerged to challenge U.S.-based companies.

Tennat notes that companies such as ZTE and Huawei in China make communications equipment and compete with Ericsson (ERIC) and Alcatel-Lucent of the world,” Tennant says. “They’ve come in and been able to produce a competitive product at a much cheaper price point. That’s how they challenge domination by the developed market players, by being able to make a product that covers 70 percent of the demand at half the cost.”

New Opportunities, New Risks

Although homegrown innovation poses challenges to U.S.-based technology companies, fund managers point out that other factors will work in their favor. David Eiswert, manager of the T. Rowe Price Global Technology Fund, notes that the global expansion opportunities for companies like Baidu are limited. Furthermore, innovation in areas based on intellectual property, such as software, are still largely the domain of the United States.

But in commodity products where low-cost manufacturing is an advantage, such as PCs, U.S.-based companies will be challenged in the global market.

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“If you have a business in the West that doesn’t have intellectual property and isn’t changing fast, the pressure from Asia is going to be incredible,” says Eiswert.“But the case for U.S. and European companies is that the intellectual property values of the companies are very high, and tech is still about intellectual property. You can see an Acer come out of Taiwan and compete in netbooks. But you’re not really seeing anybody coming out of Asia and competing in advanced semiconductors or software. That’s where a lot of the profitability is.”

Additionally, the fact that emerging markets are currently building their infrastructures creates opportunities for U.S.-based companies.

“Technologies like 3-D design software are going to be critical in leading the development efforts in this infrastructure build out,” Donlon says. “I really like Autodesk’s positioning as it addresses the build out of those markets.”

But as technology from the traditional industry powers helps facilitate the expansion of global markets, it’s also fostering the conditions that enable the rise of new competitors.

“The reality is that other regions of the world are raising their tech profile,” Donlon says. “They’re becoming increasingly important in the areas of engineering and the sciences, they’re graduating more students in these areas than we are. It’s becoming more of a competitive race for intellectual assets. Countries like China and India are developing their own R&D capabilities. I definitely believe the technological power is becoming more global and not as U.S.-centric as it has been.”

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