Thursday, January 14, 2010

Without Google, Will Baidu Become China's Minitel?

I clearly remember visiting my cousins in France in the mid-1980s, the heyday of a device launched in 1982 by Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunication (the French national telephone company) called the “Minitel.” The Minitel was a marvel. It consisted of a small keyboard and monitor with myriad uses: you could buy things, book seats on the train, check the market, find a phone number, and even chat with friends. It being France, pretty much everyone in the country eventually had one. It was a pre-Internet Internet—connected by phone lines, through a centralized system.

Now if there was any way to save this Gallic innovation from its inevitable demise once the Internet rolled into town, I am sure that the good folks at the PTT (now France Telecom) would have teamed up with this or that minister to find one. Indeed, they tried. But a national network, operated through a centralized carrier, could not compete, in any way, shape, or form, with the global, almost organic, architecture of the Internet. The Minitel limped along, but today is nothing more than a glorified phonebook.

Such battles happen all the time—and, almost invariably, open networks beat closed networks, and larger networks beat smaller ones, in that order.

All of which leads me to wonder if Baidu, the Chinese search company which currently has 66% of China's search market, won't be up next up for monopolistic, closed-network obsolescence if Google (which has the remaining 33% of the search market) ends up pulling out. Search is a tough business to break into--though, admittedly, most folks thought it was locked up in the US before Google got going in the late 1990s... and they were wrong. But, for a variety reasons, a search monopolist in China may be tough to displace in the market, with complacency being the predicted outcome. As one Chinese Internet market analyst quoted in today's New York Times put it, "Without competition, Baidu has no motivation to innovate."

Nick Kristof had this to say in his column today: "In a conflict between the Communist Party and Google, the party will win in the short run. But in the long run, I’d put my money on Google."

He's right. In the controlled chaos that is economic development, the chaos has a tendency to pull back every once in a while before it once again overwhelms the control. Sooner or later, that's what's going to happen here.

No comments:

Post a Comment