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Is US Right to Fear China’s Industrial Policy?

February 21st, 2011 1 comment

Yixing teapot 4

A particularly – and atypically alarmist article ran recently in the Wall St. Journal titled “U.S. Firms, China in Tech War” . You can read it here ( WSJ Article) and decide for yourself. The thrust is that Chinese national policy has shifted in recent years, making it more difficult for Western government companies to win government contracts and protect their most valuable intellectual property. According to the Journal, it’s part of a new “Chinese industrial policy” to transform China into a hothouse of homegrown leading edge technologies, with companies able to challenge American supremacy.

It makes good copy. According to the article, the issues are of such portent that President Obama discussed them directly with China’s leader, Hu Jintao, during the latter’s visit to the US last month. The article cites a fretful report from the US Chamber of Commerce in China, titled “China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’: A Web of Industrial Policies”.  The report claims China is building an “intricate web of new rules considered by many international technology companies to be a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before.”

To me, it seems that the Journal may be guilty of mistaking cause for effect. Is China pursuing a nationalist domestic procurement policy? Most likely, just as the US and virtually every other developed country does. Will this make it harder for non-Chinese companies to sell gear to China’s government agencies?  Quite probably. Are Chinese rules crafted in such a way to make it obligatory for Western companies to transfer their technology to Chinese partners? Seems to be the case.

But, will any of this actually achieve the stated goal? Here, I’m a lot less agitated than the Americans quoted in the Journal article. The reason is also found in the same article, which makes a passing reference to similar rules in place in Japan, Korea, Germany and elsewhere. Fat lot of good they’ve done those countries.  Their aggressive “buy local” rules, and other protectionist measures to “nurture” domestic innovation have done little to nothing to achieve their stated aim. In fact, the opposite is the case. If you want to draw up a list of the countries that have lost significant ground to the US in new technologies over the last twenty years, you can start with those that pursued similar regimes to China.

Twenty years ago, France, Germany and Japan all had large, well-known computer companies. Today, Bull, Nixdorf and NEC are either bankrupt or laughing stocks. Their governments’ passionate embrace turned out to be a kiss of death.

The same is true in the industries that the US government has chosen to support and nourish with subsidies and protection. Think about the billions wasted (or as our current US administration tabs it “invested” ) on “alternative energy” and “clean transport” in the US.

Industrial policy, in almost all cases, has a track record untainted by success. There are a lot of good reasons for this, but the most fundamental of all is that government officials, however well-schooled and well-meaning, have no competence to choose winning technologies, and certainly do so with far diminished effectiveness than an open, vibrant market of billions of customers.

Governments all love command and control. The problem is they can only do one of the two. Commanding your citizens to produce advanced products, and lavishing subsidies and protection on those who pay attention to you, is not the same as controlling which technologies will prove most useful, as well as most time- and money-saving.

Yes, this system can produce bullet trains in Japan and China, and maglev trains in Germany. Problem is, no one else wants to buy them, and your citizens are mainly too busy and happy futzing around on Facebook or Google to much care about any of this.

If China does favor domestic technology companies, the risk is these companies produce just enough innovation to please their government customers. But,  like Bull, Nixdorf and NEC, they will produce nothing that anyone else with free choice will care to buy.

Sure, I’d like US companies to have a better crack at the Chinese market. But, then again, I’d like some of my Chinese clients to have a better crack also at the Japanese, Korean and European markets they are often shut out of. Governments by their nature, sadly, are usually protectionist and nationalist. China is no different. The US has often tried to keep these malign instincts at bay. But, my homeland has all kinds of “buy American” favoritism in place for government contracts.

Innovation is important. But, often enough, it’s good marketing, pricing and efficient global distribution that wins customers, and generates the profits to reinvest in more new ideas and products. I don’t know of a single great technology company that relies on its national government as a main customer. Those that do so, like SAIC in the US or EADS in Europe, often end up falling behind the technology curve.

US companies have every right to complain about unfair procurement policies in China. There’s no solid ground, however, for believing that these same policies will result in China producing world-beating technology companies in the future. One of the surest way to find the failed technology companies of the future is to search for those whose main customers are their own nation’s bureaucrats.


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Remembering Digital Computer’s Ken Olsen: He Changed the World & My Life As Well

February 10th, 2011 2 comments

Ken

One of the true heroes of American business, Kenneth Olsen, died this week. Olsen was founder of Digital Computer Corporation (DEC), which during its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, was one of the largest, most technically advanced and most successful computer companies in the world. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, called Mr. Olsen “one of the pioneers of computing,” adding, “He was also a major influence on my life.” Gates’s interest in writing software was formed as a 13 year-old, while playing around on a DEC computer.

Olsen was also one of the businessmen I most admire, and played a small, but lasting part in my own career. I met him in 1986, at DEC headquarters in Maynard, MA, outside of Boston. I was there to interview him for Forbes Magazine. I remember Olsen as a warm, modest, wry  – and above all, very patient man.

It was my first assignment as a Forbes reporter, having only joined the magazine, on its lowest rung, a month earlier. Olsen was 60 at the time, one of America’s most celebrated and wealthiest entrepreneurs. I was a 27 year-old, with no real knowledge of business or journalism, and had never seen, or used, a DEC computer.  Thinking back, I’m amazed Ken Olsen didn’t take one look at me, and send me straight back to my windowless cubby in Forbes’ New York headquarters.

I’d persuaded my editors at Forbes to let me do some research on Georges Doriot, a then 87 year-old former Harvard Business School Professor. Doriot is the founding father of the venture capital industry in the US, and his VC firm, American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC),  was the original investor in DEC. I had a hunch that Doriot’s role in American high-technology was underappreciated. To my surprise, and even more to my editors’, Olsen agreed to see me to share his recollections of working with Doriot.

In 1957, Ken Olsen was a 31 year-old whose only experience up to then was as a lab worker at MIT.  Doriot agreed to invest $70,000 to finance DEC’s startup. Digital began producing printed circuit logic modules used by engineers to test electronic equipment. The company also started developing the world’s first small interactive computer, a forerunner of the IBM PC.

Within a decade, at the time of DEC’s IPO in 1967, Doriot’s investment was worth $355 million, a 500-fold increase.  Doriot’s investment in DEC  is generally considered not only the first great success of the US venture capital industry, but the standard all other venture capital investments have been measured against ever since, not only on financial terms, but also in lasting impact.

For more than a generation, DEC was one of the world’s most important and successful technology companies, dramatically lowering the cost and complexity of business computing, by selling smaller closet-sized computers that rivaled IBM giant room-sized mainframes in power and performance. DEC made all its own hardware and software. This was before the founding of Intel and Microsoft, the two companies that eventually toppled DEC’s dominance, doing to DEC what it had done to IBM.

When I met him, Olsen was nearing the pinnacle of a remarkably accomplished career. DEC was among the most admired and profitable companies in the world, with sales approaching $10 billion.  As for Doriot, the venture capital work was really something of a sideline for Doriot. He continued to teach management courses at Harvard Business School all the way up to his retirement.

As things turned out that day in 1986, Ken Olsen never got around to telling me  about Doriot. Instead, when I walked in, Olsen said matter-of-factly, “I just finished a long series of interview with reporters at Fortune Magazine”, Forbes’ main competitor. “They are planning a cover story about me.”

I may have been new to journalism, but I did figure out Olsen was spoon-feeding me my first scoop. If I could get him to talk about DEC, instead of Doriot, I could rush back to New York,  write up the interview and, with any luck, beat Fortune into print.

Fortune was renowned, back then, for spending months reporting, discussing, polishing, photographing and group-editing their cover stories, like a group of sous chefs fussing over preparations for a Royal Dinner at Buckingham Palace.  Forbes was always pluckier,  quicker to turn ideas into print – more like short-order cooking.

It all worked as well as planned. My story came out about a month before the Fortune cover article, which called Olsen “America’s most successful entrepreneur”.  This was my first byline at Forbes, and one of the few times a new junior hire was allowed to get a story into the magazine. It was the start of, and probably set the tone for, my very charmed nine year career at Forbes. Within less than a year, I was promoted twice and handed my dream job as a foreign correspondent in London. As far as I know, it was the fastest rise ever at Forbes, from cub reporter to foreign correspondent. Though I never got to meet Ken Olson again, I never forgot his central role in all this.

When I read Olsen’s obituary, I went searching online for my Forbes article. I hadn’t read it since it came out. No luck. Forbes’ online archive doesn’t go back 25 years. I called the Forbes switchboard in New York. I don’t know anyone working now at the magazine. I eventually got through to a librarian. She sent me the article. Here it is:  Olsen article

I’d remembered Olsen’s key part in undoing the dominance of mainframes. But, I hadn’t recalled he was such an early proponent of networked computing. At the time, I didn’t grasp the significance of what he was telling that day in his office, about introducing a new kind of office computer, called the VAX 8000 that would link newly-launched IBM PCs together. I do understand it now.  Those linking computers came to be known as servers, and this “client-server architecture” is still the way the internet, as well as company networks, are configured.

For this, Olsen deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest and most influential pioneers of the internet. Back when I met him in 1986, there was no such thing as the internet or broadband. Signals traveled between computers using 14.4 bit modems. A typical 10kb story of mine would take about five minutes to upload to my Forbes editors. Today, sending that file would take less than a second.

Thanks to the VAX line of computers, DEC became the world’s first dominant server manufacturer. It was because of this that Compaq, a PC company that later was bought by HP, agreed to buy DEC in 1998 for $9.8 billion. Eventually, Sun Microsystems overtook DEC as the leading specialist manufacturer of networking servers, before it too was holed below the water line – in Sun’s case, by cheap servers using Intel chips. These Intel-based servers remain preeminent today. But, this was all long after Olsen retired from Digital in 1992.

Olsen didn’t get it all right, of course. He thought servers would always do most of the work of business computing and so earn most of the money, that PCs would remain, what they were when I met him, expensive machines with too little memory and processing power to do more than the most rudimentary tasks. I’m writing this now on a Dell laptop that is a thousand times more powerful than the VAX computer DEC launched right around the time I met him.

While much else has changed in my life over the last 25 years, I continue to meet great entrepreneurs. I’m lucky enough to have some as clients. But, no entrepreneur played a larger role in getting me to where I am today than Ken Olson. By handing me a scoop, he handed me my first big career break. I can’t begin to compute all the wonderful things that have come my way as a result,  and so can’t begin to compute the debt I owe him.


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Chinese New Year Is Upon Us — Rabbits in Red Underwear

February 3rd, 2011 No comments

Newyear

It is certainly the largest annual mass underwear change in the world. This week, as many as 100 million Chinese will take off their red underwear for the first time in a year and change into other colors. Meanwhile, 100 million other Chinese this week will pull on red underwear and wear no other color for the next twelve months.

It’s not fashion that rules this process, but supersition. This week is Chinese New Year. Wearing red underwear is meant to provide protection against misfortunes likely to target the one-in-twelve Chinese who this year will celebrate their 本命年 (“benming nian”), or birth year . This is a Rabbit Year. Everone born during a previous Rabbit year is likely going to take some precautions this year, including the red underwear. A red string bracelet or belt are also commonly worn by people during their birth year.

One’s birth year isn’t automatically going to be unlucky. But, there’s thousands of years of folk tradition that says people should extra mindful. This extends across most aspects of daily life. Many Chinese will try to avoid making larger life changes, or consequential business decisions, during their birth year.  I have one client, for example, whose founder was born 72 years ago, in a Tiger Year. The company is booming. The founder had numerous offers during 2010 to sell his business for a significant sum, or start work on an IPO. He chose to do nothing but wait things out. Now that Rabbit Year is dawning, he is ready to start considering his exit options. And, of course, changing back to a more neutral color of underwear.

As a Westerner, it takes some getting used-to, this notion that one’s birth year may come freighted with potential misfortune. After all, in all belief systems except possibly the Nihilists, one’s birth is considered a blessing.  But, in Chinese tradition, the anniversary of one’s birth year is a time when things can go especially awry. Or worse. The red underwear is meant to act as a kind of lightning rod, attracting an added flow of good luck during the year.

Red, of course, is associated with happiness, prosperity and good fortune in Chinese culture. Two of the more common sights in stores and on streets in China this time of year are crimson-colored envelopes and similarly-colored underwear. The envelopes, of course, are used to hold the cash handed out as New Year gifts to family and coworkers. The new underwear for men, women and children, in all sizes and styles,  is the flight suit for those about to traverse their birth year.

There’s also quite a lot of red underwear on sale this time of year in the US and Europe. But, it’s generally of the skimpy and sexy Victoria’s Secret variety, given by husbands and boyfriends as a Valentine’s Day gift. That custom is catching on rather quickly also in China, where Valentine’s Day is celebrated twice a year, on February 14 and also usually sometime in August (the date changes every year according to the lunar calendar), when the traditional Chinese version known as 亲人节  (“Qinren Jie”) falls.

Underwear is less commonly given as a Valentine’s gift in China. However,  fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends are supposed to buy red underwear for the women in their lives about to enter their birth year. Love in China is often expressed as a protective impulse.

I tended to view the mass changeover of one-twelfth of China to red underwear as a quaint superstition, one of the evermore scarce expressions of an antique and thoroughly unscientific traditional culture. But, over the last year, I saw at first hand the kind of mischief and harm that can target people during their birth year.

Last summer, I got word that another client of mine, one of my favorite people in China, was arrested while trying to cross into Hong Kong. He was accused of paying a bribe to a senior government official in one of China’s less developed inland provinces. He was taken from the Hong Kong border to a prison in the province’s capital, then held in detention for over three months while his friends and family raised the money to free him.

Under Chinese law, paying a bribe is treated more leninently than accepting one. But, it also signals rather emphatically the person has money.

I saw him soon after he got out. He was a shambles, gaunt, with a prison buzzcut and clothes that no longer properly fit him. I offered to help out his new venture, unrelated to the one that landed him in jail.

I invited him for lunch again a few weeks ago. He was his old self again, brimming with vigor and good cheer. As soon as the tea was poured, he proposed a toast, “To a happy Year of the Rabbit, and a quick end to the Tiger Year, my birth year.” We never discussed directly his time in prison, or even that I knew about his ordeal. He’s elated to be out of jail – and, by all appearances, almost as happy to be out of his birth year.

I glanced down at his feet.  He was wearing red sox.

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