First a disclosure. I am a small investor in Netvibes and Tariq Krim, Netvibes founder and CEO is on the French Board of Fon. Now having said this let´s focus on Netvibes.
I find Netvibes fascinating. When it started it was a cool place to read your blogs. Now as it reaches the 2 million unique users per month I see that Netvibes is becoming a tool to do practically everything on the web, indeed I would say that it´s becoming a browser in itself. For those who don´t know Netvibes I recommend that you go to the site and survive the most difficult moments at Netvibes, the first 3 minutes. Yes, even though the growth of Netvibes is spectacular Netvibes is not that easy to use at first. Indeed the best thing would be if a techie friend helps you out for the initial minutes. But after that, after you learn how to program RSS feeds, how to create tabs to divide subjects (mine are blogs, news and tools) you start feeling that netvibes creates a garden out of the internet jungle that was growing uncontrollable in front of your eyes every day. At Netvibes now you can store your documents, see pictures, listen to podcasts and music, read your g mail, keep track of what happens in flickr, etc, etc, etc. If I was allowed to visit only one site per day, Netvibes would be it.
Ola, our lead fonero in Sweden organized a great event/party for Fon in Stockholm. The co organizers of this party where OpenBC and Skype. The pictures are here. The party itself was great and there were around 700 people there but one thing deserves special mention. I was very happy to be there with Skype and OpenBC, two of the best European internet companies. As we know most of the internet developments are done in Silicon Valley. While that lead will probably stay there for many years to come it is great to see also that we can build technology/internet companies in Europe. When I was at Columbia University in New York City the Europeans and Latin Americans used to work in teams while the Americans would be more inclined to work alone. I hope that now that the internet is mostly about communities that we continue our collaborative spirit over here and while competing we can help each other enough to succeed.
While presenting Fon in Stockholm yesterday, I met a few Swedish entrepreneurs who have very viral projects that are getting a lot of users on the net. The first one is Jalbum and the second one is Stardoll.
While I am more likely to be a user of Jalbum than of Stardoll, I can see why both are very successful. Jalbum is like a more professional looking flickr, less social, more focused on photographers who may want to show their work. Stardoll is something completely different. It´s target market is young girls and it´s about dressing their stars, which appear as virtual dolls. Apparently it is phenomenally successful.
The Movimiento Fon started in Spain but quickly spread to Sweden. The first appearance of Fon on a world wide basis was in Stockholm last november at SIME, one of the best internet conferences I have ever attended organized by my dear friend Ola Ahlvarsson. Why Sweden? Because Sweden is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, a country of early adopters. My thinking was that if we could make it in Sweden we would eventually make it everywhere. And after the Stockholm launch we were able to attract the attention of Skype (of Swedish origin) and Google and end up with these two amazing internet firms as partners in Fon. Five months later I am going back to Stockholm to attend a fonero party. I hear that over 600 foneros will be there. Should be a lot of fun. We are now 31,000 foneros world wide and are present in over 140 countries.
I only have the press release in French but from what I read Free (Iliad) the second largest ISP in France with 1.6 million customers has just announced a system that at least partially copies Fon but in a very phone centric way. At Fon you pay for broadband at home, install a Fon ready router and you roam the world for free wherever there are foneros (people who share wifi). With Free their system is that you pay for Free broadband at home and it comes with a wifi router and a wifi gsm phone (200 euros) and then you roam wherever in France there are other Free customers and you use their wifi signal with your phone without paying. So it´s like Fon but only for France and only for phones. Still it´s a great initiative and we are all for it. Free France!
I was reading articles about UMA. It seems that the marriage of GSM and WiFi is happening for real.
I recently read that David Sedaris moved to Paris and started writing on France only to be sorry a few months later he had so quickly written about Paris and ended up sounding like the typical American in Paris. Nevertheless because I belong to a more rare group, that of an Argentine in China I will dare to make a series of comments on China with the caveat that I am no China expert and have only been four times to China since 1988. My last visit ended yesterday.
On China and Cars:
China invested a lot in car plants. Chinese have bought cars like crazy during the last 5 years. In 1988 it was all bikes. Now it´s all cars. Madrid has one avenue, Castellana which is extremely wide and cuts the city in two. In Beijing a Castellana is a normal avenue. Most avenues have 6 to 8 lanes. This policy is not sustainable because China does not have the resources that it takes to make and use cars, namely iron, oil, oxygen... It is also dangerous. Since so many people in China just got a car for the first time it is probably the nation with most drivers in the world but also with the least experienced drivers. Moreover the conversion of bicycle nation to car nation seems to be the opposite of what the world needs. In Europe bicycle riding is on the rise, in China cyclists are a dying breed….literally.
On China and Pollution:
Mostly as a result of oversupply of cars and taxis and lack of a subway system, Beijing has an incredible level of pollution. Horrible. The worst I have ever experienced. Indeed when I was there last week even the Chinese newspaper in English that is put out by the government was saying that Beijing was experiencing the worst pollution crisis ever. The paradox of China is that government seems to intervene heavily in controlling unnecessary things, such as what people Google, and not in controlling necessary things, such as what people drive. Government intervenes in environmental policy much more in Europe than in China even though government in China is supposed to be more interventionist. I think that China has an amazing opportunity to lead the world in hybrid cars for example. In the perennial traffic jams of Beijing hybrid cars would do wonders for the environment. Why doesn´t the government act?
On Health Care:
China seems to have a very unusual Communist health care system in which all health services are provided by the government (very Communist) but they cost a fortune to the average Chinese (very capitalist) and the average Chinese lives in fear of getting sick (very American).
How come the most populous nation on earth remains the most competitive nation on earth without government intervention in the form of anti trust? As we saw in the West capitalism tends to lead to quasi monopolies or oligopolies as the best companies simply win over everyone else (Microsoft and Google are examples) and sooner or later they end up being regulated as they accumulate enormous market share. But in China this does not seem to happen. Without government intervention capitalism so far seems to work. Indeed where capitalism does not work in China is in the businesses in which government gave itself the monopoly (the election outcome business for example). Other than that there are no killer category businesses in China. America is the country of the killer category retailers, Walmart, Starbucks, Mc Donalds, u name it. But in China fragmentation rules. Even in the computer sector tons of brands compete selling their products through extremely competitive TINY outlets. I could not find one big computer shop in China. China´s brand of capitalism actually works very well.
On Soy Sauce:
Where´s the soy sauce? Isn´t Chinese food suppose to come with soy sauce? On all my meals there soy sauce was never part of the equation. Is soy sauce like the spoon for Italian pasta that nobody uses in Italy but outside Italy everyone thinks it´s very Italian to eat pasta with a spoon?
I went to a fake market. These are the prices. Adidas Shoes: $6. DVDs: $1 to $2, Games: $2, Hermes wallets: $10, Bulgari, Cartier, Rolex, Watches, $7. Diesel Jeans: $8. Guess T Shirts, $6. In short things at the fake market cost around 90% less than the real stuff. Now as I was in the fake market I wondered about what is fake and what is real. Most of the goods we buy in Europe and USA are made in China and seeing how much it really cost to make them in China and realizing that European companies say Adidas are paying $5 for shoes they sell us for $80 you wonder who´s really faking what here. Is intellectual property worth 90% of the value of things?
When I was at the Avellaneda High School in Buenos Aires, my class mates an I used to have spitting contests. Distance spitting, precision spitting were some of the common competitions. While most of my class mates and I have given up on the sport, spitting is alive and kicking all over Beijing. Olympic sport? Not sure. Yet, spitting in public is as common in Beijing as say, coughing in public in Europe. Other than the fact that to most foreigners spitting is disgusting I think that the moment the avian flu is transmitted from human to human, the Chinese practice of spitting will become akin of that of having unprotected sex. Simply deadly. Now again, can´t the Communist Party do something about spitting? As I said before there are instances in which strong government helps. If the NYC government, another quasi Communist institution (the tax burden of well off people in NYC is higher than that of well off people in China), was able to fine pet owners $200 for not cleaning after their dogs, what about huge fines in China for…spitting!!
On China Taiwan and Democracy:
Every large democracy has two main parties, the progressives and the conservatives. China also has two main parties the Communist party and the KMT. The only problem is that the Chinese opposition party is in…Taiwan. Now as the entrepreneur that I am I see a great opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone namely unite China and become a democracy. How? By allowing KMT to be the first legal opposition party not only in Taiwan but in China as a whole. In this way China would be united with Taiwan and become a democracy without firing a shot. How about that?
Movie Piracy is bad for Hollywood but Great for America´s image
Whatever Hollywood may say about movie piracy it is thanks to piracy that the Chinese are so exposed to American culture which otherwise they could not afford. The result is a very pro American culture view prevalent in China. Considering the disastrous foreign policy of George W Bush I would argue that if it wasn´t for piracy the average Chinese would have a much worse image of the United States.
On the Yuan:
The largest bill available in China is equivalent to a 10 euro bill. The largest bill available in Europe is a 500 euro bill. Moreover in China credit cards are not widely accepted. Most Chinese don´t have them. Personally I don´t understand this policy as it encourages Chinese with money to save in dollars or euros. Again a missed opportunity for the Chinese government, in my view if they printed at least 1000 Yuan bills they could release considerably more currency in the marketplace without causing inflation. You can´t have a serious currency whose largest bill is worth 10 euros.
On the Chinese and the Indians:
When I am in India people speak perfect English and yet I have a hard time understanding them. When I am in China people speak poor English yet I understand them very well. What I like about Chinese people in business is that they are straightforward. They are single minded about being successful and it is easy to understand what they want. You may say yes or no but you won´t leave the meeting wondering about what their objectives are.
Why do the Chinese continue printing bills showing Mao Zedong a man responsible for the death of an estimated 38 million people during the cultural revolution? Why isn´t Mao for the Chinese more like Franco for the Spaniards or like Stalin for the Russians? I don´t get it.
On Economic Growth and Freedom of the Press:
Economic growth in China is amazing. Since my first visit in 1988 China has been completely transformed. While China is not a democracy it is certainly much, much freer than it was in the 70s, 80s, the trend is in the right direction and in any case for a country in which people until not so long ago starved economic success is more important than democracy. Yet one of the most important elements of true democracy is transparency and I wonder if the Chinese won´t adopt more of the elements we associate with democracy not so much for a love for democracy itself but simply to be able to sustain their economic growth. The Wall Street Journal for example while being extremely conservative in politics it´s very fair in business reporting. As such The Wall Street Journal is a tool for investors. A fair an open press is necessary for investors to make choices. Will this be a loophole towards freedom of the press?
Here they are.
China´s censorship is well known in Europe and the States. But much to my surprise, I am writing this post from Beijing where tonight I tried but consistenlty failed to experience censorship. I tried everything I could think of. I did searches in Google on all the taboo subjects in China, for example Tiananmen Square, Tibet Independence, Falon Gong, both on my Blackberry and the internet connection at the hotel and….no censorship. There were tons of results extremely critical of the Chinese government in my searches. Moreover I had been told that in China you could not access the Wikipedia, but I can get it without any problems. Now let me clarify, I am sure that there is censorship in China but it is probably in Chinese and that I cannot check. Or maybe I got the uncensored GPRS and the uncensored ISP. I don´t know what´s going on but everything I try works: blogging, flickring, skyping, googling, yahooing, netvibing where i have tons of blog feeds and of course foning (we already have our first 100 Chinese foneros). I was also surprised to see that in China you can buy SIM cards for phones and GPRS data services without disclosing your identity. I did this yesterday. You can also use Skype without difficulty and surf anonimously in tons of internet cafes. The same is not true in Japan for example where last week I was denied the purchase of local mobile phone service as I was told that it is not available to foreigners nor can you buy it without disclosing your identity as you can in Spain. And surprisingly me an my 11 year old son were thrown out of a video arcade because my son was supposedly underage (there was no gambling). And yesterday in South Korea I found out that South Koreans have to input their full names and national ID numbers before being allowed to surf on many sites including Google (who I understand is fighthing this government request). This unusual practice makes it such that it is hard to surf without being followed. And in America where most of the China criticism is based there´s significant censorship with the “obscenity” loophole as defined by the FCC (telecom regulator). When I watch TV in America (rarely) I find that the obscenity censorship is very much a practice. In Spain for example there are many TV and radio shows that would be defined as obscene in America regularly being aired.
Comparing all countries my opinion is that Spain, where I live is the least censored country that I experienced, nothing much is censored neither based on ideology or morality. Same is true of most of Europe. The rest of the world, America and Asia included would score worse in an openness index.