Copykittens and AI Innovation

China’s early copycat internet companies looked harmless from the outside, almost cute. During China’s first internet boom of the late 1990s, Chinese companies looked to Silicon Valley for talent, funding, and even names for their infant startups. The country’s first search engine was the creation of Charles Zhang, a Chinese physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT. While in the United States Zhang had seen the early internet take off, and he wanted to kick-start that same process in his home country. Zhang used investments from his professors at MIT and returned to China, intent on building up the country’s core internet infrastructure.

But after a meeting with Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, Zhang switched his focus to creating a Chinese-language search engine and portal website. He named his new company Sohoo, a not-so- subtle mashup of the Chinese word for “search” (sou) and the company’s American role model. He soon switched the spelling to “Sohu” to downplay the connection, but this kind of imitation was seen as more flattery than threat to the American web juggernaut. At the time, Silicon Valley saw the Chinese internet as a novelty, an interesting little experiment in a technologically backward country.

Bear in mind that this was an era when copying fueled many parts of the Chinese economy. Factories in the southern part of the country cranked out knockoff luxury bags. Chinese car manufacturers created such close duplicates of foreign models that some dealerships gave customers the option of removing the Chinese company’s logo and replacing it with the logo of the more prestigious foreign brand. There was even a knockoff Disneyland, a creepy amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing where employees in replica Mickey and Minnie Mouse suits hugged Chinese children. At the park’s entrance hung a sign: “Disneyland is too far, please come to Shijingshan!” While China’s enterprising amusement park operators borrowed unabashedly from Disney, Wang Xing was hard at work copying Facebook and then Twitter.

While leading Google China, I experienced firsthand the danger that these clones posed to brand image. Beginning in 2005, I threw myself into building up our Chinese search engine and the trust of Chinese users. But on the evening of December 11, 2008, a major Chinese TV station dedicated a six-minute segment of its national news broadcast to a devastating exposé on Google China. The program showed users searching Google’s Chinese site for medical information being served up ads with links to fake medical treatments. The camera zoomed in tight on the computer screen, where Google’s Chinese logo hovered ominously above dangerous scams and phony prescription-drug services.

Google China was thrown into a full-on crisis of public trust. After watching the footage, I raced to my computer to conduct the same searches but curiously could not conjure up the results featured on the program. I changed around the words and tweaked my settings but still couldn’t navigate to—and then subsequently remove—the offending ads. At the same time, I was immediately flooded with messages from reporters demanding an explanation as to Google China’s misleading advertising, but I could only give what probably sounded like a weak excuse: Google works quickly to remove any problematic advertisements, but the process isn’t instantaneous, and occasionally offending ads may live online for a few hours.

The storm continued to rage on, all while our team kept failing to find or locate the offending ads from the television program. Later that night I received an excited email from one of our engineers. He had figured out why we couldn’t reproduce the results: because the search engine shown on the program wasn’t Google. It was a Chinese copycat search engine that had made a perfect copy of Google—the layout, the fonts, the feel—almost down to the pixel. The site’s search results and ads were their own but had been packaged online to be indistinguishable from Google China. The engineer had noticed just one tiny difference, a slight variation in the color of one font used. The impersonators had done such a good job that all but one of Google China’s seven hundred employees watching onscreen had failed to tell it apart.

The precision copying extended even to the most elegant and cutting-edge hardware. When Steve Jobs launched the original iPhone, he had only a few months’ lead time before electronics markets throughout China were selling “mini-iPhones.” The fun-size replicas looked almost exactly like the real thing but were about half the size and fit squarely in the palm of your hand. They also completely lacked the ability to access the internet via your phone’s data plan, making them the dumbest “smartphone” on the market.

American visitors to Beijing would clamor to get their hands on the mini-iPhones, thinking them a great joke gift for friends back home. To those steeped in the innovation mythology of Silicon Valley, the mini-iPhones were the perfect metaphor for Chinese technology during the copycat era: a shiny exterior that had been copied from America but a hollow shell that held nothing innovative or even functional. The prevailing American attitude was that people like Wang Xing could copy the look and feel of Facebook, but that the Chinese would never access the mysterious magic of innovation that drove a place like Silicon Valley.

In my next post, I look further at innovation and replication. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. Have you had experience with high-quality knockoffs? What did you feel about using them? Thank you for sharing your comments.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Sep 06, 2018 in All Posts China Innovations