When we write or talk about competition in the technology industry, we tend to focus on the usual suspects: Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and a handful of other large companies.
But in Asia, a battle of epic proportions is shaping up between Tencent Holdings and the Alibaba Group, two companies that don't get much public attention here in the U.S.
Tencent and Alibaba compete intensely for attention from China's 770 million Internet users. Increasingly, they are positioning themselves as one-stop digital shopping malls for goods and services ranging from takeout food to cloud computing.
It seems that each company wants to become China's indispensable virtual supermarket. In many ways, their strategies are similar to those of Amazon. But they seem intent on engaging deeply with Chinese consumers in a variety of areas, including banking and healthcare.
"In the internet realm, China still offers a spooky potential vision of the future, one in which online behemoths like Tencent and Alibaba become the gatekeepers to the entire economy, wielding immense power over traditional industries and becoming very, very rich in the process," writes Raymond Zhong in the New York Times.
It's difficult to say whether Tencent and Alibaba are creating a new paradigm for competition, or merely adding features to the existing model for digital consumerism. In either case, they are worth watching.
As Zhong notes in his article, it's unlikely that a similar duopoly could emerge in the U.S. or Europe. For the moment, both companies enjoy good relations with the Chinese government, but that could change if Beijing decides their size could pose a threat.
From my perspective, the lesson here is that we need to pay closer attention to what's going on in other parts of the world. I've written numerous posts about the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into full effect on May 25. I've also written about the pending ePrivacy Regulation, which was approved by the European Parliament last fall. Both sets of regulations will undoubtedly affect U.S. businesses, and that's why we need to understand them and prepare ourselves.
The larger question, however, is whether we're prepared for decades of intense competition with China. As I wrote last week, managing our trade relationships with China will be orders of magnitude more difficult than anything we're likely to experience with Europe.
That's why we've got to study what's going on in China today. The epic battle between Tencent and Alibaba offers a glimpse into the future of business. We can learn valuable lessons by watching how they compete, and we can apply the lessons we learn to improve our business strategies.