Reflections on Asian technology in 2013

James Sanders takes a look at the year in review in the realm of Asian technology, including stories you may have missed when they first broke.


Asian tech

2013 has been an eventful year in the world of technology. With the disclosures by Edward Snowden beginning in May, the brief shutdown of Silk Road, and arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the focus on privacy and security has become more intense than perhaps at any point in the history of the web. With Silk Road in the headlines, the concept of Bitcoin gained widespread press coverage. This resulted in a Congressional hearing on virtual currencies and an exchange rate of below $1000.00 (USD).

In the realm of Asian technology, however, the game-changing events weren’t front-page news -- at least, not in the English-language media. Here are five important stories from 2013 in Asian technology.

1. Japanese telecom Softbank acquires Sprint for $21.6 billion

Softbank’s bid for Sprint started in late 2012, but the transaction didn't closed until July 10, 2013. In a related transaction, Sprint bought wireless telecommunications firm Clearwire at the same time the Softbank takeover was pending. The end result of these acquisitions has made Softbank Group tied for the third-largest mobile telecom in the world at $32 billion in revenue for the first half of 2013. (State-owned China Mobile reported $43 billion, Verizon was in second at $37 billion, and AT&T tied for third at $32 million.)

Softbank’s CEO, Masayoshi Son, indicates that he is “preparing a secret weapon” to revive Sprint’s operations. He plans to focus on fixing Sprint’s network, which has been lagging behind AT&T and Verizon for several years. Softbank’s domestic wireless operations were purchased from Vodafone in 2006. At the time of purchase, Vodafone’s Japanese operations were flailing compared to competitors KDDI and NTT docomo. Since the purchase, Softbank Mobile’s operating profit has more than doubled, due in part to Softbank locking up the iPhone as an exclusive handset in Japan until the release of the 4S.

2. Oppo N1 shipping with CyanogenMod

Oppo Electronics, a burgeoning Chinese electronics manufacturer, has announced that its newest flagship phone -- the N1 -- scheduled to be released in December, will have the option to ship with the CyanogenMod out-of-the-box. This is a first for any phone and potentially the beginning of a new trend in mobile computing. With the announcement of Cyanogen incorporating earlier this year, the concept of Android ROMs distributed in a way similar to Linux distributions could be the start of unprecedented user control over smartphones. Similarly, Jolla has announced its intent to offer distributions of Sailfish OS for Android devices.

3. India bans use of free email providers for government business

In the wake of the disclosures by Edward Snowden, the Indian government banned the use of privately-owned email services -- like Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s -- for use in official government business. Instead, government employees are expected to use official resources provided by the National Informatics Centre, the internal-government IT services bureau.

4. PRC declares Bitcoin cannot be used as currency

The Chinese government has declared that Bitcoin, the popular digital currency, cannot be exchanged for foreign currency or used to pay mortgages, legal settlements, investments, or insurance. This action undermines the ability for any digital currency to operate in an effective manner competitive with official governmental currencies. This action was taken by the PRC after an exchange abruptly went offline, taking millions of dollars in users’ Bitcoins with it.

5. Acer posts massive losses, CEO and replacement resign

For Q3 2013, Acer posted an operating loss of NT $2.57 billion vs. an operating profit of NT $340 million, while facing an 11.8% decrease in sales year-on-year. Acer’s performance has not been stellar since the 2011 ousting of CEO Gianfranco Lanci, resulting in the resignation of his successor, JT Wang. Shortly after that announcement, corporate president Jim Wong -- the man announced as Wang’s replacement -- also resigned. In an effort to stop the bleeding, the founder of Acer, Stan Shih, agreed to return as unpaid President, and the CEO position has been eliminated.

Shih has 78 million shares vested in the company he founded. With the troubling state of things for OEMs in the age of tablet computing, reviving a flailing OEM is quite the undertaking. Shih has the benefit of being asked to take over -- in contrast to Michael Dell’s takeover and privatization of the OEM that bears his name.

Final thoughts

Weighing the big stories in Asian technology in 2013 is a task that requires a lot of reflection. While these stories are undoubtedly important to the overall industry landscape, they are far from an exhaustive look at the challenges that will be faced in the upcoming year. What other stories in Asian technology from 2013 do you think are significant? Share your insights and opinions in the discussion thread below.