Archive for December, 2010

Gaming notes

Over the last year I’ve been researching the growth of casual gaming in China. Last month I was able to spend time in Yunnan in the rural southwest. But the gaming I found wasn’t the gaming I had been reading about, likely because it’s hard for a guy like me to shoulder-surf a bunch of small screens. Hope these observations are still of interest though….

Most prevalent type of gaming I saw? Realworld social gaming. Streetside Mahjong, Rummy games using western cards or narrow domino cards, crowds kibitzing a Xiangqi chess game in the park. You can see this throughout China, but it seemed particularly striking this trip, perhaps because Yunnan is less economically developed than the coast. People getting together, enjoying each others’ company over a game. Massive, a part of daily life.

This was a big contrast with Internet Bars. I had seen these parlors in other cities, but got more of a chance to peer inside on this trip to Yunnan (still don’t have deep personal experience, though). These aren’t really “Internet” bars… seem more like gaming bars, with a side-course of personal video viewing. For every twenty active screens I saw, sixteen had fullscreen games, three had video, and perhaps one had text.

Dark, cocoon-like rooms… dozens or even scores of stations… frequently in neighborhoods of similar venues. I wandered to the top of a shopping mall in Kunming and saw half a dozen Internet Bars clustered together, holding hundreds of screens. Practically empty during the day, yet full at night. Each person at their own station. Isolated.

The contrast was profound. There’s a big social-gaming tradition already, and yet the new technology goes off into another direction, towards isolated experiences. I know I’m only seeing one small part of the picture, and that superficially, but it was one of the most striking impressions of this trip for me. People over 40 playing non-electronic games together in the sun, and people under 30 playing electronic games in the dark, in a crowd, but alone.

Something else unusual I saw this trip… arcades in transition. Some gaming parlors in Yunnan had 70s-style gaming consoles, big plywood affairs dedicated game to a single game. Amusement parks also held dusty older devices, mechanical games where you’d twist knobs and push levers to get something to happen. Small convenience stores still often have little Pachinko-like games. Some of the Internet Bars seemed to have particular computer games as their home screen, but this was the first time I saw the connection to the older mechanical games which preceded them. I don’t know if the same evolution appeared in urban coastal areas after the economy was opened up, but seeing the evidence of growth on the southwest frontier added new context for me.

Kids? Another surprise: yo-yos and hula-hoops. In other parts of China I’ve often seen the Diabolo, the “Chinese Yo-Yo”, a large set of twin hemispheres which could be disengaged from the string. But here it was straight Duncan sleeper work, with schoolboys doing Rock-The-Cradle and other standard tricks. Although Hula Hoops are sold in other cities, there were more in Yunnan storefronts, and I actually saw them in use too. I saw much less Tai Chi and Rope Dart and Staff, Spear or Sword, maybe because I didn’t hit the parks early-morning. But schoolkids in Yunnan were real big with Yo-Yo and Hula Hoop, very different from elsewhere. Maybe a legacy from The Fighting Tigers of World War II?

But the biggest gaming shock for me was a day-trip to Macau, a ferry ride away from Hong Kong. I last visited here five years ago, and since then it has surpassed Las Vegas as a gambling destination, opening the world’s largest casino, among dozens others. I knew all that, but wasn’t prepared for the collateral growth, the related buildings which have grown up among them. It’s like a whole new town suddenly popped up alongside the old one.

Easiest way to compare is to look at the former biggest gambling spot, the Casino Lisboa, next to its new big sister, the Grand Lisboa… that second Wikipedia link shows the two side-by-side. Directly across the street is the large Wynn Macau from 2006, while the even larger casinos are on reclaimed land in Cotai. Among these giant casinos has sprung up a whole network of smaller gambling houses and related businesses, running all the way out to the ferry landing, and then there’s the new Fisherman’s Wharf theme park to the south.

Growth hasn’t taken over the city… the backstreets of Macau are still as atmospheric as before. But this new landfill area… it just wasn’t there before. Macau has a long history of gambling, and is the easiest place to gamble from mainland China, but to see the massive changes in just five years… I was left, bug-eyed and slack-jawed, staring on the sidewalk in disbelief. Amazing.

So that’s what I’ve got. No insight into the private world of people using new computer games on handheld personal devices, but more insight into the tradition of people playing games, some concern about the Internet Bar scene and its lack of Vitamin D, and raw astonishment at the scale of the “house take” in organized gambling. No conclusions, just better context….

Device notes

Subjective high-level patterns, along with random low-level detail, about ways I saw people using various devices in Hong Kong and Yunnan last month.

Omnipresent devices: mobile phones, cameras, bigscreen TVs, cars and lesser vehicles. Before 1978 the great goals were a bicycle, a radio and a wristwatch. The children six years old today will have much greater expectations than ours… their change will accelerate even more rapidly than ours. Mobile phones will be as exciting to them as electric lights are to us.

Television: Still the big device… phones have the greater growth, but more people are affected by video experiences.

At least in mainland China, though, this still seems a constrained experience. Hotels in Yunnan offered dozens of channels, but (at least in the places I stayed this trip) were all national or regional networks. I’ve seen CNN and other global channels in Beijing and Shanghai. This trip, all CCTV, Yunnan TV, Hunan TV, etc. Much of the content seemed formulaic to me… historical dramas, soap operas, news, sports. But such content was prevalent in street stall disc sales, too.

Big wildcard here may be disc sales and Internet video. I’ve no idea of the distribution channels or content types here. This could be an important sector… many of the “Internet Bars” are used to watch video on demand, and there were many pocket televisions on sale. The overall video scene is growing beyond the broadcast channel.

Hong Kong hotel TV seemed quite a bit more open, with more foreign stations, a bit more risque late-night content (although still tame). On the other hand, street stalls along Temple Street offered a lot more adult discs than what I’d seen before.

Department stores this year uniformly carried flatscreen displays. Even three years ago it was 50/50 flatscreen and cathode-ray screens. This year the only CRTs I saw were in used-good markets.

One oddity: few gigantic environmental displays. In Beijing and Shanghai you’ll readily see multi-story external displays in certain districts. Even Chongqing in central China boasts impressive outdoor displays. I did see one four-story tall video screen in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei district, but that’s all. Still haven’t seen any giant displays with handheld interactivity.

I did see one set of touchscreens in use, in Lijiang’s main square, Sifangjie. But these weren’t always working, and when they did, the level of interactivity seemed like a Macromedia Director kiosk circa 1999.

Striking sight: Back alley in Jinghong, gated windows with clothes drying, big 72″ flatscreen showing behind. Across the alley, in the opposite gated window, a large rooster surveying his domain.

Phones: Everywhere. But these are still simple mobile phones, used mostly for voice.

China Mobile and Unicom had the biggest number of storefronts… a staggering number of storefronts, more than seemed financially plausible. They held many models, but all seemed to be similar types of featurephones, similar size of displays. Nokia shops came next, then a few Samsung.

Saw phones among all age groups. Don’t recall seeing anyone in tribal attire with a phone.

About 70% were held to the ear, about 30% held to the eyes… more texting than I’ve seen on previous trips. Looking at screens seemed disproportionately strong among under-30 females. Yelling into phones was still more common among over-40 males.

Saw a few iPhones in use in Hong Kong… some seemed authentic, some seemed inauthentic, but mostly it was hard to tell. Saw a few people using Android interfaces on their larger phones in Hong Kong too. But these were dwarfed by featurephone use.

In Yunnan many convenience stores offered landline services. Hadn’t seen that for awhile, where you go down to the local store to make a call. Feels like a transition between communal phones and personal phones.

Tablets: Striking for their scarcity. Most of what seemed to be tablets in Hong Kong stores were actually pocket televisions, in 5″ and 7″ sizes. Signage for Samsung Galaxy Tab was noticeable in Shenzhen, and many shops in Shenzhen and Hong Kong did offer tablets for sale. Only tablets I saw for sale in Yunnan were some iPads of dubious authenticity in a university shop in Kunming.

Believe I saw a small Android tablet in Kunming… just caught a glimpse of the UI, couldn’t get a make, suspect it would have been older Android. Never saw the word “Google” anywhere (nor Baidu, for that matter). People were using digital technology, but it didn’t have the same type of branding emphasis I see in San Francisco.

Computers: These aren’t the most common consumer electronics goods. Shops usually cluster together, and do offer a good selection. Most usage seem to occur indoors.

Most of the computer screens I saw in use were part of retail operations, for cash registers. In Yunnan, a large portion of the computers I saw used were in CAD storefronts, usually connected to a plotter for printing building plans… striking. Did see a few young-professional appearing folks actually working with laptops in public.

Netbooks surprised me by their popularity… maybe 30% of the total portable-computer offerings, particularly in the larger department stores.

The Internet Bars I saw usually had a Windows 7 homescreen on their displays, although many homescreens seemed to be set to particular games.

Striking sight, in Kunming: Streetside news/juice kiosks, with the proprietor using a webcam for live video communication with another vendor elsewhere… saw this a few times. Drove home how technology adoption is driven by local social networks.

Cameras: This was the sleeper item for me… didn’t expect it to be so big, probably because I saw more domestic tourists than ever before. Many had way-big cameras, zoom lenses, multiple cameras, tripods. A personal status symbol, similar to how big your automobile is?

Also saw recurring TV infomercials comparing the results of different models, how much better a photo can look with a bigger investment.

A common small business near ethnic tourist spots: photo stations, with tribal costumes, digital cameras, a computer for light editing & selection (more Microsoft Photo than Photoshop), and a printer, perhaps some digital transfer to a personal device. Some of these stations were used to play Microsoft Solitaire.

Biggest impressions: Ready adoption of technology, as it becomes available. Tablets have not yet gained popular awareness. Phones have not yet matured. Faster adoption in urban east than rural west. And people really respond to cameras….

Two markets near Hong Kong

I spent most of November in China. Here are some notes on two electronics markets near Hong Kong, the Apliu St. “Thieves Market” in Kowloon, and the HuaQiangBei electronics district just north of Hong Kong, in Shenzhen. Nothing definitive; just anecdotal.

Hong Kong has long been known for its retail consumer electronics… one of the world’s freest economies, Southeast Asia’s gateway to mainland China. Most tourists say that the better bargains are just north of Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui. But a few miles further north of that, in Sham Shui Po, is the Apliu Thieves Market [map].

Like the Wikipedia entry above says, the diversity of goods on Apliu St. is astounding… all types of current tools, not just boxed consumer electronics. There were dozens of kinds of digital meters and calipers, which alone gives an idea of the range of tools. Prices are more reasonable too: I picked up an 18″ keychain (US$3), a pocket AM/FM radio for baseball (US$7), and a mini-screwdriver from Japan (US$3). If you’re buying bigger items, be prepared to bargain from the listed price, and doublecheck what you actually receive.

Mobile phones were still the big thing by far… dozens and dozens in each storefront, mostly Nokia and Motorola and Samsung and various PRC brands. I wasn’t savvy enough to evaluate the list prices, but it was easy to see that this was the major portion of many stores’ offerings. For every smartphone there were a hundred or more feature phones, at least in the street-level displays.

Smartphones were present, but in low volume. I saw a few iPhones, usually highlighted in the front window of a shop, but very few. And of those, most seemed to be in boxes with suspect printjobs. Android phones were spread throughout the displays, but usually with Android 2.1… some of these were global brands, but most Android handsets were from mainland brands which I did not recognize. Feature phones were in abundance… higher-power phones were available, but not yet popular.

Tablets were also few, at least at first. Most of the tablet form-factors were actually GPS displays or, in much greater volume, pocket televisions. (These pocket TVs seemed to use broadcast signal rather than digital storage, but I didn’t check for sure… surprising how many there were for sale.)

Later, towards the north end of Apliu Street I saw more Apple-branded and Android 1.6 or 2.1 tablets, and variants like “aPad” and more. The iPad boxes seemed poorly printed and did not really mention Apple… slogans like “This changes everything, Again” and “FaceTime”, but not what I’d expect from legit packaging.

No Samsung Galaxy Tabs, no Dell Streaks, no obvious Android 2.2 tablets. The vast majority of tablets felt like Shenzhen products. At the higher-end Apliu places tablets had a meaningful presence but still didn’t seem to be volume sellers.

I saw a lot of other wonderful items… dog-bark silencers, loudspeakers-on-belts, great hardware tooling like personal mini-torches and precision screwdriver keychains, laser globes, digital calipers… more than my mind could retain. Felt like Radio Shack during Tandy’s prime, just updated for 2010. Prices were cheap enough that I could easily have busted my luggage limits had I wished. If you’re in Hong Kong, the Sham Shui Po Metro station lets you off right in the middle of the action.

Big takeaway: People have rapidly adopted pocket devices. Phones for voice and text are already immensely popular, and pocket TVs are big. But personal screens with peer-to-peer interactivity are only just starting to arrive, and have not yet been socially adopted.

If Apliu St. had more detail than my mind could organize, then Shenzhen’s HuaQiangBei district just totally blew my mind apart. Shenzhen is immediately north of Hong Kong. Thirty years ago it was rice paddies and fishing boats, and was opened as China’s first Special Economics Region. Now it’s now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Here’s the Flickr tag for Huaqiangbei, although this blogpost may give a more coherent view of what’s happening there. See model for scale.

The Huiqiangbei electronics district is breath-taking. Fast-paced and hectic like an early-morning wholesale produce market… top-level consumer brands down to motherboards, sheets of silicon chips, grosses of plastic cases… buyers walking briskly, comparing the day’s prices, chatting up competitors, scouting for news… shopkeepers assembling handsets in volume for custom orders, snapping chips into chassis, keyboards scattered among noodle bowls… handcarts overloaded with bubblewrap and spools, hauling boxes throughout warrens of interconnected, multi-level buildings… dozens of street huskers chanting “you piao, you piao” for discount phonecards… wide range of electronic goods, sensors, recreational, GPS components, appliances, low-level mechanical parts, toys & tools.

Overwhelming fun, and more than my brain could process, more than my words could describe. The most impressive thing for me was the range of scales of goods and activities — not just finished big-ticket goods, but the entire ecology of components beneath those finished items. The sheer level of entrepreneurial vitality went beyond any electronics scene I’ve seen, anywhere else.

Detailed notes were impossible… too big an experience. Walking out of the giant SEG Electronics Market I salaamed three times in respect, and the door guards grinned, knowing what I meant. If you could chart the daily pulse of this enormous electronics market, then you’d have a good handle on the progress of technology throughout the world.

Anecdotally, I did see a startling amount of street-level signage for the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which I think was just about to become available there. First iPad advertisements were a couple of blocks in. I was approached multiple times by street touts wanting to sell me “authentic” iPhones… funniest was an American tourist who was proud of his new iPad, with the Apple logo on the back of its (very purple) casing. I saw every global brand I could imagine, and many national brands I didn’t recognize. Impossible for me to estimate pricing… “advertised prices” are merely that, a starting point for negotiations.

Like the Hunts Point Market at 3am, mixed with Akihabara and Yongsan electronics districts, a little bit of Macy’s on Christmas eve, and strongly seasoned with the Homebrew Robotics Club… just plain awesome.

If you’re a gadget-head, and have a PRC visa, then ride Hong Kong’s East Rail Line to LoWu Station, cross immigration, take Shenzhen subway two stops north, transfer and go two stations east, then take Exit A. The Huaqiangbei electronics district extends to the northeast.

The Silicon Valley techblog scene can seem a bit of an insular hothouse, with many voices repeating what is fed to them through “planned leaks”. But if you want to see the vitality of street-level growth in the field, then Hong Kong’s Apliu St. market, and the Huaqiangbei district in nearby Shenzhen, will well repay a visit. Exhilarating.