Google Inc. (GOOG:US) Chairman Eric Schmidt picked a Beijing gathering of 3,000 “geeks” for his first public appearance in China in three years as he tries to reach out to the nation’s top applications developers.
The billionaire’s talk, given after last month’s visit to North Korea, highlighted how forums known as Geek Park have become the epicenter of China’s Internet sector, attracting companies, developers and investors looking for a piece of the world’s biggest online market. The two-day event, similar to “TED Talks,” also included executives from startups, Qihoo 360 Technology Co. (QIHU:US), Baidu Inc. and Sohu.com Inc.
“This is the place to go,” said Xiong Weiming, a partner at Beijing-based venture capital fund China Growth Capital, who attended Schmidt’s talk. “It’s the quickest way to understand who to meet and what to ask.”
Google closed its mainland China search engine in 2010 because of a censorship dispute and began redirecting users to a Hong Kong-based site. The Mountain View, California-based company also shut a Chinese shopping service in December, three months after announcing the closure of the local version of Google Music Search.
The company does have a large presence in China through its Android operating system, which runs two-thirds of the smartphones sold there annually.
Geek Park has held about 40 forums since 2010, when founder Zhang Peng decided China needed events to help developers share ideas, find funding and create products for the nation’s online market. China has about 564 million Internet users, or more than the combined population of the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“We wanted to create something that would encourage more people to innovate, to feel proud about it, and that would be a platform for communication,” said Zhang, who was previously a reporter for a local technology magazine. “There used to be a lot of copycats in China and not enough innovators.”
Geek Park events are usually held in a convention center in east Beijing’s Chaoyang Park. The organizer, Beijing Wen De Zhi Yuan Culture Communication Co., also publishes magazines and does industry research.
The free forums are targeted at product managers, developers and investors. Presenters are encouraged to talk about the inspiration for their products and how they developed them, rather than just explaining what the application does, said Jason Ng, the events’ director of operations.
“We want to ensure the people who come to our forums are professionals who will shape the industry,” Ng said. “It’s not uncommon to have people sitting and lying on the floor, even standing outside the conference room to hear the speeches.”
The talks, which are open to the public and posted online, have also included subjects such as the challenges for startups and how social media is transforming the music industry.
“I really appreciate Geek Park,” said Zhou Hongyi, chairman of Qihoo, a Beijing-based antivirus company listed in New York. “China needs such a forum to gather together many little geeks, product managers and early startups to discuss and share their experiences.”
Geek Park billed Schmidt as a “mystery speaker from a global Internet company” before his appearance. At the event, he spoke for about an hour, mainly about Google’s Android operating system as he tried to persuade developers to write applications for the platform.
Wearing a dark jacket and tie, Schmidt also answered questions about Google’s mobile strategy, how to deal with copycats and users’ frustrations with the slow speed of Gmail in China.
“The Geek Park event offered a great forum for Eric to connect with some of China’s incredibly talented developers and entrepreneurs, which are communities he is passionate about,” said Taj Meadows, a spokesman for Google in Tokyo.
China is luring Internet investors as surging economic growth boosts online spending. The nation’s online-retail transactions are projected to more than double to 2.57 trillion yuan ($411 billion) by 2015 from an expected 1.22 trillion yuan last year, according to Analysys International, a Beijing-based researcher.
U.S. e-commerce spending rose 15 percent last year to $186.2 billion, according to ComScore Inc. (SCOR:US)
The government has strengthened assistance for startups, and set a goal of boosting the number of technology incubator companies to 1,500 by 2015 from 896 in 2010, according to a statement.
Microsoft Corp. plans to incubate 100 companies a year in China, Zhang Ya-qin, chairman of the Redmond, Washington-based company’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group said at a conference in Singapore yesterday.
“We actually provide the space, the technology, mentorship, access to funds,” Zhang said. “In Beijing, we tried that about six months ago, we hosted 10 companies. When the talent graduated, we brought in another 20.”
China’s vocational schools and universities recruited 1.6 million information-technology students in 2010, according to the latest numbers available on the Ministry of Education’s website.
While China’s technology workforce has shown innovation, the country has fallen short in execution and in creating methods for turning ideas into profit, according to Garry Wang, the founder of local online video-site Tudou.com.
“The ecosystem is definitely not as strong as Silicon Valley,” he said at the conference in Singapore. “We don’t have as robust a financing system in place -- we don’t have a good way of bringing companies public and getting mergers done.”
Geek Park has eased this process by creating a link between developers and investors, said Zhu Feng, co-founder of JooMe, who gave a presentation on the second day of the January forum. His startup company encourages users to share wireless Internet connections in return for incentives.
“It used to be quite hard for startups and investors to meet,” said Zhu, 34. “Geek Park is much more transparent and efficient.”
Zhu’s presentation attracted the interest of China Growth’s Xiong, and his fund is now in the final stage of talks about investing in the Tianjin-based startup.
More advanced companies also speak at Geek Park, which makes it useful for mid-to-late phase investors, said Xiong, who has friends in Taiwan who fly in especially for the events. China Growth’s previous investments include goumin.com, the nation’s biggest social network for dog owners, and micro-lender CreditEase, according to the fund’s website.
Geek Park “is a really good opportunity to communicate,” Xiong said. “People in this circle all want to know what the trends in China’s tech industry are.”
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