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Tencent looks to the final frontier

Tencent looks to the final frontier
Feb 2, 2018 (WiC 396)

Another week, another Tencent deal. The acquisitive internet giant is the latest tech firm to knock on Hollywood’s door. Late last month it announced it had bought a 10% stake in Skydance Media for around $150 million. The studio is responsible for producing a number of top film franchises including Star Trek, Mission Impossible and Terminator, and was established in 2010 by David Ellison, son of Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

According to the Wall Street Journal the Chinese firm is keen to get content for its Netflix-like video streaming platform in China. It reports that Tencent has 43 million subscribers for its online video service and spent $4 billion purchasing original content in the first nine months of last year (for more background on China’s booming online video market, and who the key players are, see WiC383).

The Wall Street Journal also suggests Tencent could help Skydance get more of its movies shown in Chinese cinemas, where there is a quota on the number of foreign films that can be shown per year (currently set at 36 films).

Should the pair do co-productions they would be exempt from the quota entirely. Tencent owns a studio called Tencent Pictures and helped co-produce the World of Warcraft movie (see WiC328).

The sky is not the limit

The sky is not the limit
Jan 26, 2018 (WiC 395)

Tencent’s social media platform WeChat has become a ubiquitous part of most people’s lives in China, numbering almost a billion subscribers – with users looking at the app for hours per day to help organise their social and business lives. However, there has been one area where Pony Ma’s popular service has been unavailable: in the skies above China.

However, that changed last week when Hainan Airlines got permission from regulators to let passengers use their smartphones and tablets to go online via an onboard WiFi service. Prior to this Chinese airlines required smartphones to be switched off during flights owing to air safety concerns. Now other major carriers including Air China, China Eastern and China Southern have followed Hainan’s Airlines’ lead (the latter launched the service last Wednesday on an evening flight between Haikou and Beijing).

A reporter from the Hong Kong Economic Times later tried using the WiFi service on a China Eastern flight, and described the speeds as disappointing. A passenger that the journalist interviewed said he’d had trouble accessing the broader web or sending email but had been able to send text and pictures via his WeChat account.

National Business Daily notes that China Eastern already has 74 planes equipped to use WiFi and says the installation cost works out at about Rmb7 million ($1.1 million) per aircraft. However, the Beijing Youth Daily calculated that if Chinese airlines charge Rmb10 to use it on domestic flights and Rmb100 on longer international routes, the industry’s potential new revenues could amount to Rmb8.4 billion annually.

Around 60 international carriers offer WiFi services already, though charging practices are anything but standard. Only eight offer free WiFi, while it is common among top carriers to charge economy class passengers for its use but offer it to business and first class passengers as a perk.

WiC wonders how Chinese carriers will treat the more sensitive issue of internet access. For instance, will passengers flying beyond China’s borders still be subject to the nation’s famed Great Firewall or will they be able to access blocked sites like Facebook and Google while they are in international airspace?

Xi’s books of the year

Xi’s books of the year
Jan 19, 2018 (WiC 394)

One strength of WiC is the way our curation of content points to trends. A couple of years ago we barely ever mentioned AI (artificial intelligence). Over the past 12 months readers will have noted the topic was mentioned at least once every issue. And sure enough, President Xi Jinping is keen to be associated with the game-changing technology too. The front page of the China Daily this week carried the headline: “ Xi’s bookshelf illustrates goal of developing AI powerhouse”. The bookshelf was featured in the Chinese leader’s video address to the nation at New Year. It soon attracted the attention of those trying to work out what he was reading. It was deemed significant by netizens that two of the most prominent books on display were about AI: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine will Remake Our World by Pedro Domingos; and Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane by Brett King. “The president has attached great importance to the development of artificial intelligence,” mused the China Daily, clearly delighted by the Chinese leader’s highbrow scientific reading matter (it doesn’t mention it, but Michael Wolff’s new account of the White House – Fire and Fury – suggests President Trump does not read books, preferring cable TV).

Meanwhile the Financial Times reports that Alibaba’s AI system bested the average human score in a global reading test using the Stanford Question Answering Dataset. It was among several AI systems to participate in the exercise, and tied in top place with Microsoft’s. Commented the FT: “While Microsoft and Alibaba won by the slimmest of margins – at accuracy levels a few basis points above humans’ 82.3% in providing exact matches to questions – the tie provided a fitting symbol of the AI arms race being waged by the US and China.”