But that could be set to change with both Far-Eastern giants eyeing global expansion.
Alibaba is China’s nearest equivalent of the western world’s Amazon e-retailer. Baidu is the Asian economic powerhouse’s answer to Google.
The pair’s threat to the existing US hegemony has been likened to a digital gold rush – with major players prospecting for customers in the first really global web marketplace.
Emerging economies, including Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and India, will increase the demand for such web services that are highly visible and trustworthy without sacrificing speed.
Effective translation is expected to play a significant role in deciding the final outcome.
In which case, Alibaba could be in pole position. That’s because its founder Jack Ma has experience in the field, having launched his own translation agency, Hangzhou Hope, in the early-1990s.
Breaking into the West – the push for global expansion
Alibaba’s public floatation on New York’s stock exchange this autumn could witness the biggest stock offering ever achieved in the US. It is estimated that 20 billion dollars (around £11.9 billion) could be raised, experts predict.
Alibaba is already in a strong position, having:
- already built a robust cash base. Alibaba sales totalled 248 billion dollars (roughly £147.5 billion) last year, nearly double Amazon’s numbers.
- built a huge reputation within the planet’s most populated economy, with 600 million web users.
- signalled that it is an acquisitively ambitious company.
- a soon-to-be illimitable investment, brought about through sale on the public market.
Alibaba’s similarities with the Amazon model suggest that the move into the West could be more seamless than originally thought.
It’s the same story with Baidu. Among its other services are Image Search, “street-view” Maps, and Video Search. Sounds familiar?
It is also following in the footprints of the Google model by getting heavily involved in artificial intelligence and establishing labs for its pioneering research. It is even reportedly striving to develop a self-cycling bike.
The Alibaba story
The Hangzhou-based company’s projected multi-billion flotation is a far cry from its humble origins. Alibaba started out of its founder’s one-bedroom flat. On a visit to the US, a friend introduced Ma to his PC and taught him how to navigate on the web. Ma’s search drew a blank when he keyed in the words “beer” and “Chinese”. Gap-in-the-market eureka lightbulbs began to flash on and off in his head. Three years later he was part of an 18-strong company that sought to assist small businesses in their quest to sell online products. Today, Alibaba.com links Chinese’s vast army of producers with small business concerns around the world, with users including 100% Pure, the cosmetics retailer.
The Baidu story
Web trailblazer Robin Li, the genius behind the pioneering Hyperlink Analysis search technology, launched Baidu in 2000. The Beijing-based firm’s mission was, and is, to provide users with the optimum method of discovering data and link consumers with the services they require. It gets tens of billions of search requests daily and is also behind China’s biggest encyclopaedia. Baidu has just put down roots in Brazil, with industry commentators predicting that North Africa and Indonesia are next on the list.
The importance of translation in new markets
Alibaba already has a foothold in the developing economy of Brazil. Beauty products, pet food, and dresses are among the biggest sellers on its sites there.
To push into new markets, Alibaba will have to crack the language barrier. It’s no good having the right product for the right market if the product details are lost in translation. Sound, reliable translation is key to getting your message across. Failure to do so could disenfranchise your target market. The recent Obamacare fiasco with its Spanish translations has proved this.
Alibaba’s slight trading differences to Amazon suggests it may be well equipped to successfully cross the translation barrier. That’s because it is already versed in successfully generating many separate sites tailored to individual transaction methods. Each one gives the business the possibility of immense global reach. eBay and Amazon, conversely, start at the base of single web hubs before venturing out. Finding the right, efficient, human translators will be a major step to Alibaba’s success as it seeks to break into the English-speaking market.
Baidu faces similar challenges. These are made still harder by the fact that it is inextricably associated with China’s restrictive censorship laws.
The positives appear to outweigh the negatives, however.
For a start, Baidu believes that its deep understanding of language and translation in the domestic market augurs well for its push into global markets.
Its own website says that it concentrates on offering the best optimised technology for the most up-to-date local preferences and tastes.
Baidu takes the example of the meticulous importance it places on the different nuances of the word “I” as proof of its trans-language flexibility. “I” can be said in a minimum of 38 separate ways in Chinese languages, a fact not lost on Baidu. Its reasoning is this: if Baidu can attune itself to the differing language requirements of the world’s most populated country, it is a natural progression to do the same for the whole planet.
Such know-how may enable the company to bridge the gap and provide – via the help of seamless translation – services that some US firms currently don’t understand.
In addition, the potential for a huge new translation market arises with its Google-style push into the field of AI. In May the firm hired Andrew Ng, the esteemed computer scientist from Stanford University, to lead its new California-based AI lab.
Ng has already launched Google Brain. This is a study initiative that utilises vast swathes of computers to undertake machine learning.
Baidu wants him to employ comparable methods to enhance natural-language processing, computer vision, and speech recognition. Such projects, claims Ng, could help computers to improve their understanding of the written and spoken word. This, in turn, should make it simpler for people to talk into their phones in order to formulate e-mails.
Whatever happens, it looks set to translate into a fascinating East-v-West battle to see who will strike digital gold first.