Discover more from Pekingnology
Pony Ma explains his "CBS" vision for Tencent
Rare, first-person account from the Tencent co-founder & CEO
This post has been languishing in Pekingnology’s draft box since November 2021. It was put on hold because the content was - and remains - apparently tempered with too much corporate PR perfume. (You’ve been warned.)
But given too much has been happening with Tencent and the tech world these days, maybe it is still of some value, at least in that it is a rarely-seen first-person account, from the Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board, and Chief Executive Officer of Tencent, whose market cap stands around $457 billion today.
The Chinese version Pony：CBS三位一体，科技向善 appears to be first published online on November 15, 2021, by Tencent in one of its own WeChat blogs. Is in fact a preface of the following Tencent Focus 2021 book in the picture.
Perhaps in line with the broader Chinese dynamics, the focus and tone from Pony Ma sound, at least to your Pekingnologist, very different from his peers in the United States, be it Mark Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for metaverse or Elon Musk’s devotion to space travel - or his latest endeavor into Twitter.
Tech for Good: the Trinity of CBS - Consumer, Business, and Society
by Pony Ma
When the Internet made its debut more than 20 years ago, it was cool to write programs. People used to compete with each other to see who could write the most beautiful code. But I was more interested in writing code that was useful for people.
In 1995, I launched the Shenzhen site of 惠多网 FidoNet, opening the door to a new world. Founded in 1984, FidoNet is the world's first BBS network. At that time, users only needed a modem card and a telephone line to connect to the BBS station. BBS was originally meant to be the Bulletin Board System, but its features gradually increased due to user demand.
Later, the letter discussion and document exchange sections were developed for users to send emails and faxes and share the latest programs. BBS also supported online communication. This meant that online users could chat and have meetings with each other in realtime, play computer games together when bored, and receive help from experts when they encountered problems. These BBS sites were developed by computer enthusiasts, with all the services free of charge.
Emojis were already a huge hit at that time. For example,:-) is a happy smiling face; 8-)— means to drool with envy, and 8-X means to be scared and dumbfounded. Emojis are more expressive than words. With a little effort, anybody can create their own symbols and circulate them on the Internet and around the world.
FidoNet was my first time working closely with the Internet, and this experience gave me a basic understanding of Internet products.
How does a good Internet product come into being?
First of all, a product has to have an application scenario since products are only valuable when being used.
No matter how sharp a knife is, if left idle, it will end up rusting in the corner. Computers, if left disconnected from the Internet, are just isolated islands of information. Science continuously pushes the limits of human cognition and makes us more capable. Our accumulating and evolving capabilities can eventually be applied in a number of scenarios to improve our work and life.
After Michael Faraday discovered the principles of electromagnetic induction, humans understood and acquired the ability to generate electricity, and Thomas Edison invented the light bulb; Samuel Morse invented the telegraph to send messages with electricity. FidoNet connects strangers from all over the world, allowing them to exchange information and ideas more conveniently. It opened up new application scenarios and brought computers to life.
Second, networks bring new value. When a product is used by many people to form a network, it will evolve and iterate by itself.
This is just like a great piece of literature. Readers always have unique interpretations, shedding new light on the author's original work. Internet products are the same. Sometimes it is difficult for us to predict how people will use them. As more people use a product, it will be used in more diverse ways, and netizens will develop more inventions and creations.
By paying careful attention, we'll learn more and get inspiration to develop new features and continuously iterate the product. FidoNet has developed from simply a bulletin board to hold an increasing number of functions. Users can also create their own emojis. This is the value of building networks for applications.
In the following decades, BBS kept upgrading and the Internet developed rapidly, leading to new application scenarios, novel functions, and fresh products that were hard to predict at first. Portal sites, instant messaging, and long and short videos are all innovations, and we are so fortunate to take part in these innovations. We have created popular products including QQ and WeChat, which are the result of participation from both creators and users. This is a really exciting process.
And it is still ongoing. In developing QQ and WeChat, we discovered a third value: crossing fields.
QQ is an application created by merging an instant messaging tool similar to a pager with the internet. WeChat is a mailbox in essence, combined with mobile Internet. Many innovations are the result of crossing fields. When the accumulated technological capabilities of human beings reach a certain level, these capabilities lead to new cross-field application scenarios.
Now we are facing numerous opportunities for cross-field innovation driven by "Tech for Good". In the third decade of the 21st century, two changes are taking place at the same time. One is the rapid improvement of a series of technological capabilities, including cloud computing, Al, virtual reality, biotechnology, and new energy. The other is people's ever-evolving needs brought about by the development of society, politics, economy, culture, and technology.
An increasing number of industries are becoming more digital and intelligentized, and a growing number of elders, children, and disabled people are joining the digital world. The main target of Internet services has changed from customers (C) to businesses and other institutions (B) and now to society (S). This is a new stage in the industry's development.
Ar this stage, social demands are different from those of the past. Many social problems come from multiple different industries and have affected different groups of people for a long time. These problems cannot be solved overnight. They require us to look at the whole picture and gain an in-depth understanding of social pain points to set a concrete direction for our efforts.
We suffered a great setback when we first went into the rural areas in China to help the local communities living in poverty. We sent 11 experienced product managers to serve in temporary positions in these locations. All of them returned without accomplishing anything, except for one. This "stubborn" product manager kept her chin up and remained in Tongguan (a small village in Guizhou) to complete the project "For the Village".
The project was a great success. "For the Village" has created a mobile Internet toolkit to facilitate rural revitalization by giving full play to the features of WeChat. This toolkit can be used to customize a WeChat official account for different villages, create a "Party-Masses service center" on mobile phones for community-level government, and cultivate leaders of rural revitalization through the cultivator program.
However, the For the Village project is a "heavy" model, which consumed a lot of time and effort. In the fields of industry, education, medical care, and culture, we have also attempted many initiatives. Just like we have done with rural issues, we are studying, thinking about, and exploring these fields as well.
Since the "Industrial Internet" strategy was put forward, we have been involved in many industries. As a result, we know these industries better and are more aware of the realities of society.
While providing public emergency products and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear to us that many needs in the education and medical care industries could not be met solely from the perspective of commercialization. In this new stage, we need to come up with new ideas and upgrade our business model.
A few years ago, we were building different science laboratories, which were for Al, quantum, and robotics, respectively. Our capabilities have significantly increased. After setting up the Tencent Sustainable Social Value Organization this year, we also launched a series of new labs based on key social issues, including the Gerontechnology Lab, Education Innovation Lab, Tech Ecosystem Lab, Carbon Neutrality Lab, and WeCounty Development Lab. In fighting the pandemic in 2020 and participating in Henan rainstorm aid this year, we witnessed the power of action and creativity inspired by "Tech for Good".
We also discovered more possibilities for cross-field innovations. The outstanding performance of the "Tencent Document" during the Henan rainstorm is an example. Various rescue organizations joined this rescue effort, helping to evolve this life-saving file. Tencent Document has developed from a document editing tool into a bulletin board, a communication bar, and much more, becoming a large online collaboration tool.
Our technical team has explored new application scenarios for the future while responding to social needs.
There are many similar examples. In order to help users hear more clearly in Tencent Meeting, our engineers have developed a new generation of real-time audio technology — Tencent Ethereal Audio Al Technology. This noise reduction capability was recently applied to cochlear implants, which has improved the clarity and intelligibility of cochlear implants by 40%, allowing many hearing-impaired people to hear the world more clearly.
The Ethereal Audio Lab and cochlear implant manufacturers have jointly developed an app called Meixun Tingbao. When watching TV, the user places the phone next to them and enables Al-assisted listening, which increases the sound clarity by 66%.
As early as 2017, we developed an Al medical imaging product, Tencent AIMIS, which has been playing an important role in the fight against the pandemic. In early 2020 in Wuhan, the doctors were overwhelmed by the huge number of patients. Fortunately, doctors were able to easily identify COVID-19 by doing CT scans on patients' lungs.
We then developed a COVID-19 image recognition model with Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University. This model performed a CT lung diagnosis for more than 24,000 patients in the Leishenshan Hospital within just two months. In early 2021, the diagnostic system was mounted to hospitals' medical vehicles and made the vehicles a "mobile CT cabin". This "mobile CT cabin" system was used in Hebei Province.
These new demands have accelerated the applications of Al in the medical field.
We saw in WeChat Moments that some residents in communities needed to use passwords to leave and enter their communities, so we developed a health QR code based on the technology of the transit QR code. The health QR code now acts as an electronic pass in multiple locations. All of the travel recorded provides powerful support for China's pandemic prevention.
We recently began developing a network of emergency aid to save lives by connecting all members of society. The idea was inspired by the disastrous rainstorm in Henan province. We observed a case in which a citizen called JD.com’s local convenience store for help to save family members who were in a life-threatening situation. This led us to consider whether we could leverage our capabilities to build a new type of lite-saving network on an open platform and connect all levels of the society, including rescue teams and volunteers, local communities and stores, and even individual strangers, such as salespeople from insurance companies, delivery people, or taxi drivers. We have the capability to build this network.
Tencent started by solving cross-field issues. Now there are a lot of social issues that have not been fully addressed such as rural revitalization, elderly-oriented reform, and carbon neutrality. These issues have been major pain points for society for a long time. To solve these social issues, we can discover many exciting opportunities by applying our technological capabilities.
We used to make innovations based on products. However, in the future, we should move beyond this original framework, open our horizons, and look for more systematic solutions from a more global perspective.
It may be to C, to B, or to both. And in addition to these two, we sometimes also need to involve government agencies or other institutions to serve the public interests of the society, which is S. This is how we define "CBS" and the ultimate goal is to create value for society.
The Internet has evolved significantly since the days of a modem and telephone line just 20 years ago. Today, China has more than 1.011 billion netizens, with 71.6% of the population enjoying network coverage.
Why did we set "Sustainable Innovations for Social Value" as our company strategy and create a department dedicated to this initiative with an initial investment of RMB 50 billion? Because adopting this strategy is not only our responsibility - it’s the direction future innovation is headed.
Social value is the soil that an enterprise’s roots extend into. The more social value an enterprise creates, the more meaningful value it can grow for users and the industry. By producing better user and industry value, an enterprise is able to gain more resources and feed them back into creating social value. Social value, user value, and industry value reinforce one another and are each an integral part of fulfilling our mission.
Focus makes a difference
With so many opportunities, there is a lot that we can do. But we need to find out what we are best at and focus on it. Immersion and concentration lead to discoveries and breakthroughs, both in scientific research and in innovation. The experience we have gained in making products can be applied to creating sustainable innovations for social value.
We often find that there are many user needs. We need to identify the needs that are important and real. Our ability to make these judgments is dependent on our dedication to serving users. You need to go deeper to see what the biggest pain points are. This may be an opportunity for innovation. Only through intensive study can you begin to make small changes. Real innovation is the result of making several of these small changes over time.
Do not get overwhelmed by a large number of needs. We need to take advantage of our strengths to solve the key problems. To develop our strengths, we should focus on them for a long time and concentrate our effort on a valuable issue so that we can make continuous breakthroughs.
Tencent is a pragmatic company. Over the years, we have been committed to "Integrity" and solving problems as soon as possible. Facing all of these opportunities in cross-field innovation in this new context, we need to fully concentrate and take action.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic last year, the acceleration of digitalization has exacerbated some social problems such as economic inequality (namely, the gap between the rich and poor people) and the aging population. We are facing a radically changing era, and the entire Internet industry is rethinking the future. From its birth, the Internet has removed barriers and served as a bridge between people. Innovation is the driving force for the development of this industry. I have always believed in the power of "Tech for Innovation" and "Tech for Good".
In the past 23 years, our original intention of serving users and society has kept us advancing on the right path. This round of adjustments also gives us the opportunity to face and make up for the problems that we did not see in the rapid development over the past several years, and reconsider the role an enterprise should play in society. How can we better stretch our capabilities and apply them to more needed scenarios to create value?
This is a problem that I have been thinking about. However, finding answers to problems and discovering new scenarios to apply our capabilities is a process that brings tremendous joy.