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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Forget the predictions: here’s what the Asian technology industry got up to this year

Chinese companies like Alibaba, Didi Chuxing continued to throw their cash around

SoftBank billionaire Masayoshi Son will soon own billions of dollars of Uber shares. Akio Kon/Bloomberg
SoftBank billionaire Masayoshi Son will soon own billions of dollars of Uber shares. Akio Kon/Bloomberg

I'm not feeling quite bold enough to make predictions about 2018. After all, a year ago I didn't get why bitcoin was worth $1,000 (yeah, I know), or why Pokemon Go was so exciting.

Instead, here are a few of my observations about the Asian technology industry over the past 12 months.

  • Asean's Big Year

Last December, I predicted that 2017 might be the year of the Southeast Asian startup. This wasn't some incredible feat of Nostradamus. It was kind of obvious, with a few unicorns in gestation or already born, and Asean home to more than 600 million people and nine growing economies.

Yet the concern I had then still persists, namely that a few countries are attracting most of the money and this will need to change.

While Indonesia almost caught up with Singapore in terms of deals and funding this year, the rest of the region remains way behind. Data from CB Insights through Sept. 6 show Malaysia, in third place, attracted less than a quarter of the money that leader Singapore received. Some of those funds will flow over borders as startups like GrabTaxi Holdings Pte and Lazada Group spread their wings, but it's not the same as seeding new companies.

  • China's Influence Grows

It would be a stretch to blame Chinese companies like Alibaba Group Holding or Didi Chuxing for the continued inequality of funding. But as they keep throwing their cash around, we'll see the big Southeast Asian startups get even bigger. Grab and Lazada are such examples. Some market watchers say Alibaba and Tencent Holdings are beginning to carve up the region's startup ecosystem.

If I were to take an optimistic view of this, then I'd say that more interest and more money can help the region develop. Alibaba and Tencent are without a doubt leaders in social, e-commerce and payments, thus any technologies and know-how they bring could help spur local startups.

A pessimist would see this as empire building, threatening the opportunity for domestic firms to develop their own technologies and platforms. Technological independence could help stave off Chinese hegemonies just as Asean starts to wean itself off American dominance.

  • SoftBank

The main balancing force is likely to come from Japan. More specifically, from Masayoshi Son.

SoftBank Group Corp. joined a US$2 billion round in Grab in July. The other major investor: China's Didi Chuxing. Meanwhile, Mr Son also has his $100bn Vision Fund on tap. Mr Son has already shown his willingness to throw that weight around with the bold decision to invest in both Uber Technologies and Didi Chuxing.

Masayoshi Son's view of traditional rules

Meh

Venture capitalists rarely invest in competing startups due to conflicts of interest. But MR Son doesn't follow rules, and 2017 highlighted that fact.

His game of chicken with Uber worked -- in November he threatened to invest in Lyft if Uber didn't play ball. But the same can't be said for his attempts to marry Sprint off to T-Mobile US. Still, Son's reality distortion field showed Jobsian strength and has allowed him to plow on without concern.

  • Games: Hot or Not

Nintendo showed that console games are hip. But IPOs from Razer and Sea (aka Garena) tell a different story. Razer convinced investors that people really do want to buy expensive gaming kits, and Sea made the case for a booming Southeast Asia mobile games market. Post-IPO, however, shares in both have declined and it's starting to look like their stories should be shelved in the library's fantasy section.

  • Phone Smarts

Bankers have been selling executives at Xiaomi on the idea that the company is worth $100bn. Here's me: ROFL.

Meanwhile, shares of Apple, which takes more than 80 per cent of global smartphone industry profit, have begun to decouple from those of its main supplier, Hon Hai Precision Industry. Investors in Apple stayed bullish (until this week) while Hon Hai (aka Foxconn) shareholders have been heading for the exit since iPhone X launched. Both can't be right.

  • Bitcoin

It rose.

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.