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Vietnamese Google Rival Challenging Global Giant

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Information technologies are creating new business opportunities across the global South. As more and more people gain access to the Internet in one form or another, opportunities to offer them services also increase.

A number of key trends show how the Internet’s profile is being reshaped by the growing number of users from the global South. One of those trends is language. English was the first language to dominate the Internet – but this is changing, according to the latest data.

China has the largest number of Internet users in the world (China Internet Network Information Center) and the Chinese language is the second-most often used online, behind English and before Spanish and Japanese (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm).

While most English-language users turn to the giant Google search engine to look things up on the Internet, Google also has many rivals chasing its tail. In China, Baidu (baidu.com) offers searches in Mandarin using Chinese characters, making the Internet easier to navigate for Mandarin speakers. Elsewhere, Arabic language Internet users are being offered new services and urls using Arabic characters.

In short, the Internet is becoming multilingual, customized and local, and creating new opportunities with it.

One new business in Vietnam is challenging Google with its own locally tailored search engine. Called Coc Coc (http://coccoc.com/) – Knock Knock in English – it has already spent US $10 million to hire 300 staff at its Hanoi base, according to the Associated Press. Whether Coc Coc is successful or not in the long term, it is clear as a business it is already helping the local economy by hiring so many people and investing in Vietnam. Google currently does not have any staff in Vietnam because of its concerns about legal conflict with the government over censorship of content on the Internet, AP reports.

Coc Coc believes it has developed a system that better understands the grammar, syntax and nuances of the Vietnamese language. Another advantage it believes it has over Google is its large presence on the ground in Vietnam. With a headquarters in Hanoi, it can quickly make marketing deals and agreements with content providers. To further its local advantage, Coc Coc has dispatched camera crews and photographers to film and photograph streets and log the details of shops, cafes and businesses – all to make search results more accurate and richer in detail.

The headquarters is spread out over four floors of a downtown office block in Hanoi, and according to the Associated Press has a relaxed atmosphere similar to that found in many places in California’s technology start-up culture.

Coc Coc is a joint Russian-Vietnamese venture and is hoping to ride the fast-growing Asian Internet market by offering a search tool that understands the nuances of the Vietnamese language online. By using algorithms (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algorithm) it promises to give a faster and better search experience to Vietnamese-language users. It also uses its knowledge of the local scene to  tailor results to users’ needs.

The plan is to spend US $100 million during the next five years to lure 97 per cent of Vietnamese Internet users to make the switch from Google.

“When I came here, I had some understanding why Vietnam was a good market to beat Google,” said Mikhail Kostin, the company’s chief search expert. “But after living here for one year, I understand the language and market much more deeply. I’m sure it’s right.”

Having a local search engine tool can be a successful approach. The Yandex (http://www.yandex.com/) search engine in Russia beats Google in the Russian-speaking market. In South Korea, there is the Naver (naver.com) search engine.

Google battled it out with the Chinese search engine Baidu in 2010 before leaving the country when Google refused to abide by government censorship guidelines. Baidu in the meantime has become the number one search engine in China and is planning to expand to other markets throughout Asia.

“Google is a foreign company, and they are not here,” said one of the three founders of Coc Coc, Nguyen Duc Ngoc. “We can serve the interests of the local market better.”

Vietnam has been experiencing rapid economic growth since the introduction of the Doi Moi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doi_Moi) economic reforms two decades ago in 1986.  Vietnam is fast becoming an Internet success story, with a third of its population of 88 million (World Bank) (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam) now online. Many are accessing the Internet through their mobile phones and electronic devices.

Vietnam connected to the Internet in the 1990s and the infrastructure was built up in the mid-2000s. A national plan that kicked off in 2005 accelerated take-up of the Internet in the country as more and more people accessed the Internet through mobile phones, often at home, rather than just in public Internet centres. One study found 71 per cent of users in major cities were accessing the Internet at home (https://opennet.net/research/profiles/vietnam). One in three people in Vietnam now has access to the Internet. Significantly, the Internet has been an overwhelming success with youth in the main cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where 95 per cent of people in the 15-to-22 age group has Internet access.

Optimists point to Vietnam’s large youth population, fast-growing economy and its modern Internet infrastructure as advantages that will boost its Internet economy. This is attracting entrepreneurs and investors from across Asia and around the world working in the field of online content, e-payments systems and other online services.

With Vietnam’s Internet scene on fire, many people and companies are piling in to come up with the Next Big Thing online. Many have failed, but the same is true in every other country where new information technologies have been introduced. The nature of information technology innovation means ideas quickly rise or die depending on whether Internet users find the innovation useful or attractive. Despite great ideas, there are often far too many factors at play to guarantee any one person or company will have a success on their first try. As has happened elsewhere, ideas hatched by small start-ups, if good, are gobbled up by larger companies. Talented and skilled people usually find themselves being chased by other companies.

Resources

1) Techinasia: “Vietnam is Asia’s New Tech Manufacturing Hub”. Website: http://www.techinasia.com/vietnam-asias-tech-manufacturing-hub/

2) Allo’ Expat Vietnam: A list of Vietnam’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Website: http://www.vietnam.alloexpat.com/vietnam_information/internet_service_providers_vietnam.php

3) Telecommunications in Vietnam: A quick explanation from Wikipedia on the state of play in Vietnam. Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_in_Vietnam

4) Vietnam Women’s Innovation Day 2013: Theme: “Women’s Economic Empowerment”. Website: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2013/03/13/vietnam-womens-innovation-day-2013-launched-themed-womens-economic-empowerment-8221

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© David South Consulting 2022

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Undercurrents: A Cancellation At CBC TV Raises A Host Of Issues For The Future

By David South

Scan Magazine (Canada), April/May 1997

The screensaver on an Undercurrents researcher’s computer terminal bears a maxim that might strike a chord in a lot of CBC units these days: “Only the paranoid survive.”

The quirky media and technology show will fade to black at the end of March. Its cancellation raises a host of issues for a CBC deeply troubled by budget cuts, an ageing audience, a dearth of alternative programme concepts and an inability to plan for a future.

In the show’s pilot, Wendy Mesley – Undercurrents’ host and progenitor – set the tone for this accessible look at the relationship among technology, media and society: “Like it or not we are living in a wired world where OJ Simpson, Big Brother, even your bank machine, all converge … we’ll explore all the issues, the undercurrents of the information age.”

To those who loved it, Undercurrents was a program that satisfied a vital public need, and an ambitious concept for a public broadcaster that some say had grown a little musty. The show promised avant-garde production and investigative journalism that critically explored today’s new media and technology culture. Youngish researchers and producers were hired from outside the CBC. They brought with them experience and new ideas from specialty channels, TV Ontario and CTV. Some came straight out of journalism school.

Critical reaction to the first programs was mixed. John Doyle, a critic with the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week, lauded Undercurrents when it launched, calling it “a superb example of  solid CBC-TV journalism and original reporting.” Others were less flattering. The Toronto Star’s Greg Quill accused the show of “flirting with infotainment.” At the Vancouver Sun, Alex Strachan wasn’t impressed by a report on a weekend conclave of computer geeks in the California desert for a kind of Hackerstock. “It sounds interesting,” he wrote, “but it isn’t.”

What hurt more was schedulers playing musicial chairs with the show’s slot. Switching Undercurrents from Tuesday at 7 pm to Friday at 7 pm midway through its life left viewers confused and sent ratings plummeting just as network programmers were casting about for places to apply a whopping 30 percent budget cut. As a result, some feel the show never had a fighting chance.

In the end, it was the show’s precarious financial arrangement that killed it. Undercurrents was never funded from the general current affairs budget. Instead, it drew on a special reserve of cash created by the network. When it came time to mete out the cuts in December, the special funding bubble burst. Rather than cut further into the budgets of flagship current affairs programs, executives chose to drop Undercurrents.

Executive producer Frances Mary (FM) Morrison acknowledges that gratitude for her program’s special funding obscured a recognition of its fragility. “That was really our Achilles heel,” she says. “We were just this little orphan that didn’t have its own money. We weren’t adopted into the larger family.”

With the network funding gone, Undercurrents’ budget (rumoured to be over a million dollars per season) was nowhere to be found. Discussions about chasing a corporate sponsor went nowhere because the show needed more money than any sponsor could have provided. “It was never an issue of $100,000 or $200,000,” says Morrison. “It was the issue of our entire budget. [CBC] would still have had to come up with the rest of it.”

CBC TV’s news, current affairs and Newsworld director Bob Culbert and former current affairs head Norm Bolen both say they wanted the show to stay on the air but couldn’t find a way to fund it withou seriously hurting programs like The Fifth Estate, Marketplace and Venture.

Bolen, now VP of programming at the History and Entertainment Network, says it came down to choosing between The Health Show and Undercurrents. The Health Show won because it had a “bigger audience, a broader demographic and was bringing in revenue from sales of programming to the specialty channels.”

Mesley has another theory. “The majority of people who worked on this programme are not traditional CBCers… They can’t bump, they don’t get huge severance packages. Of course, if you want a future, those are the wrong reasons for letting people go.”

With its intensive focus on issues like the abuse of computer-morphed images, surreptitious “data-mining” of consumer purchase records, or media “freebies,” there’s no question that Undercurrents has met a need in this media-saturated world. But controversy over the cancellation centres on the age-old question of CBC and the youth audience.

Morrison and Mesley both say they intended the show to appeal to a younger-than-usual CBC audience. But CBC executives weren’t convinced it was an audience the network could, or should, go after. According to Culbert, a youth mandate was something the production team brought to Undercurrents. “It started as a media ethics show targeted at a classic CBC audience. Nobody sat around one day and said ‘let’s invent the show that will go after younger viewers.’”

Bolen expresses a profound lack of faith in the under-30 audience. “People under 30 don’t watch information programming, okay? Let’s get that straight. I sure wouldn’t spend the rest of my life trying to get an audience that doesn’t watch a certain genre of programming. This is a business where you pay attention to reality. People under 30 watch trashy American sitcoms, which I’m not in the business of doing, and which the CBC isn’t in the business of doing.”

“I think that’s bullshit,” says Reid Willis, producer and director of CityTV’s Media Television. “People under 30 are interested in what’s going on in the media. The 20 to 30 group is more media savvy than the generation that preceded them.” But Willis thinks the lack of information programming pitched at a young audience is down to a lack of interest from advertisers.

Mesley and Morrison remain convinced Undercurrents did appeal to a younger audience, but felt it was sabotaged by the schedule shuffling. In the show’s first slot, Tuesdays at 7 pm, its average audience was 499,000. The biggest night came on Sunday, October 22, 1995 when a repeat aired at 9:30 pm got an audience of 865,000. But Undercurrents’ debut in the 96/97 season in its new 7 pm slot on Fridays was demoralizing for the crew. Morrison reports the audience for the season opener at 438,000 and 434,000 for a strong programme the following week.

She says the numbers built as audiences found the programme’s new location, peaking at 678,000 on December 6. According to CBC audience research figures, average minute audience for the 96/97 season to February 2 stood at 518,000 viewers.

“Friday at seven was not a good place for Undercurrents,” claims Morrison. “It’s an older audience. In fact the audience for Air Farce [which followed Undercurrents at 7:30] is quite old, surprisingly old. I was actually astonished to find out how old that audience was.”

CBC audience research bears Morrison out, reporting that the 18-34 demographic for both Air Farce and Undercurrents has been identical this season – a mere 14 percent of the total audience.

Fridays at seven is also a heavily competitive slot packed with overhyped American tabloid TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair. Morrison says focus groups told her that audiences in that time period surf around looking for stories they like and then switch around with no loyalty to a particular programme.

“People build a menu. We took a leaf out of the tabloid book in terms of our presentation in order to survive in the seven o’clock environment.”

Undercurrents’ jerky camera work and flashy graphics didn’t endear itself to everyone, a fact the show’s producers recognized early on. “I can point to stories where we sabotaged ourselves with stylistic extremes,” admits Morrison.

But Mesley bristles at accusations the show was all style and no content, or a clone of Media Television. “We are the antithesis of Media Television. Obviously everyone has adopted their style from rock videos.  But they get nearly all their video as handouts. We are not saying, ‘This is hip.’ We are not saying, ‘This is the latest consumer thing you can add to your collection.’ We are saying ‘Think about this.’”

Undercurrents’producers express pride in the show’s innovations. They cite its lead role in web page design at the corporation., its efforts at promoting a more playful visual presentation, and its success in promoting an acceptance of media stories elsewhere in news and current affairs. But what seemed to enliven everyone interviewed for this story was a love of the public broadcasting ethos, where stories are told because they are important, not because advertisers say they are important. Many of the young researchers and producers at Undercurrents had done time at the privates, and appreciated the freedom and extensive resources offered by the CBC. But they felt they had come to a CBC whose values were in peril.

“It will be like C-SPAN here,” quipped an Undercurrents freelancer who has done time at the specialty channels.

Others who thrived in the upbeat atmosphere at Undercurrents say they’re not too keen to look for work elsewhere in the CBC. One such is 25-year-old researcher Bret Dawson. “It’s not a happy place,” he says.

It’s not clear what, if any, programming will replace Undercurrents. If the current trend prevails, it looks like any new programming will have to survive on a smaller budget, generate outside income and prove it can draw in viewers in short order. Under those conditions, people at Undercurrents and elsewhere wonder how long CBC’s commitment to innovative new programming  can hold out.

CBC TV’s Undercurrents host Wendy Mesley. Scan Magazine was published in the 1990s for Canadian media professionals.

In 2021 Wendy Mesley commented on the story in a Tweet.

More from Scan Magazine:

The Big Dump: CP’s New Operational Plan Leaves Critics With Questions Aplenty

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Information Accelerates Crisis Recovery And Development | 1997

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The United Nations Information (UN Info Shop) was established by UNDP Mongolia in 1997 and was managed by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office. Context is everything. At this time, Mongolia was still recovering from the chaotic and turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy begun at the start of the 1990s, called by some “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994)”. There was a thirst for information: access to the Internet was still limited and access to mobile phones was just the preserve of the rich. As a legacy of the past, information, especially that about the outside world and the country’s true economic and social conditions, was restricted. During the years of Communism, even simple travel from one place to the next was strictly regulated. 

While today we can take it for granted that the Internet, and mobile and smart phones, deliver the world’s information in seconds, this just was not the case in the late 1990s in Mongolia. 

The UN Info Shop quickly became a crucial resource for students (many schools and universities were nearby) and it became a first stop for many wishing to access the Internet. It also substantially raised the profile of the UN in the country as the public could, for the first time, enter the UN building and discover what the UN was doing in the country. They could also visit the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office and meet its team. 

UN Info Shop cover
P. Dagmidmaa reads the Human Development Report Mongolia 1997 in the UN Info Shop.
UN Info Shop inside
Outside the UN Info Shop 1.0
The UNDP Mongolia Communications Office Team 1998 outside the UN Info Shop in the capital, Ulaanbaatar: David South, Bayasgalan and Bayarmaa.
Many initiatives grew from the talented and dynamic UNDP Mongolia Communications Office team. Here are links to some of them:

Ger: Mongolia’s First Web Magazine

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Web Portal

Case Study: UN + UNDP Mongolia | 1997-1999

© David South Consulting 2017
In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021