Alibaba may not be a household name in the United States yet, but the company is a giant in China — with a dominant e-commerce platform, growing cloud computing system, smartphone operating system and even a finance business. It’s sometimes described as Amazon, PayPal and eBay combined, with a bit of Google thrown in for good measure.
And the company is widely expected to make a headline-grabbing IPO this year.
So we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Jian Wang, Alibaba’s chief technology officer, as part of a visit by some of the company’s top executives to the Seattle region this week. Also joining in the conversation was Robert O’Brien, who has regularly contributed articles to GeekWire via our partnership with the contextChina news website.
We spoke with the affable tech executive prior to his speech to an overflow crowd in downtown Bellevue last night. Continue reading for edited excerpts from the interview.
Why are you in the Seattle region this week, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Wang: We made a decision two years ago: As the company is growing, we definitely need a chance to interact with more people. Certainly the U.S. is an obvious choice. We decided to pay regular visits to the U.S. to get to know more people. We had the first event in Silicon Valley last October.
Are you hoping to recruit new employees, or make business connections?
Wang: Actually, the purpose of the trip is not really recruiting. As we grow, we are not really a local company. We need to know more about the outside. We need to give the whole team a view of the outside. For some of the people it’s actually the first time they’ve been in the U.S. So it’s more of a learning trip.
Have you ever thought about establishing an engineering office here in the Seattle region?
Wang: Alibaba opened an office in Silicon Valley a long time ago. It’s a very business-oriented office. I started an engineering office in Silicon Valley when I started AliCloud. The goal is very simple. It’s not the hiring, but opening an office in Silicon Valley has really given us an opportunity to experience what is happening over here.
I worked for Microsoft for a long time, but unfortunately I haven’t visited this (Seattle) area for four to five years. This trip has actually changed me a lot. I can feel the energy of all the small startups here. It’s much more energetic than what I saw. It might be good to think about having an office here. This is in the north part of the coast, and San Francisco is in the south. Just like Beijing and Hangzhou. I believe that people here have a different perspective than people in Silicon Valley. So it might be good. But this is the first time I’m thinking about it.
Wang: We are very different, but we are the same in terms of innovation. Both Amazon and Alibaba are very innovative. If you don’t embrace change, somebody else is going to change you. I think we are similar in that we know innovation is the way for us to move forward. Amazon is a company that we really admire for its innovation.
Jack Ma (Alibaba’s founder and executive chairman) has challenged Alibaba employees to each recruit 100 new users for your mobile chat application Laiwang. Have you reached your goal?
Wang: This is another way that Jack is different. When we talk about recruiting 100 users, it’s really to tell people that we have to be determined when you decide to do something. It’s not really the number itself. You have to put your energy on that. You have to love your own product. It’s that kind of spirit. He wants to make sure our employees still have this kind of mentality of a small company.
I notice you didn’t answer the question.
Wang: (Laughter). I can tell you I will exceed the number.
On the topic of e-commerce and logistics, Alibaba’s goal is to deliver anywhere in the country on the same day or within 24 hours. Can you speak to how that is being developed, and your perspective on that from a technology perspective?
Wang: We know that e-commerce is going to take over traditional retail. The only barrier that we can see is logistics. All of the logistics companies in China, we don’t think they are really in a position to be the backbone for the whole country. We’re not going to deliver to the end user. What we’re trying to do is build this backbone for the logistics, as the platform so that all the existing logistics companies can actually share this backbone. The key thing is really the sharing of data among the manufacturer, the logistics company and also Taobao (Alibaba’s consumer e-commerce platform). We view this more like a data sharing platform in some sense.
Microsoft and Amazon have both started to enter the market in cloud computing in China. How much of a competitive threat are they to you?
Wang: In terms of how you serve your customer, I don’t think we have competition with Microsoft. It’s a totally different market. Microsoft is more like a natural extension of a traditional business. It’s still a traditional software business. Even with Azure, it’s an extension of a traditional software business.
With Amazon, there is some competition. But I think it’s good. We do need the competition to make sure we serve our customer. In a certain sense I would say it’s too early to say what the competition is, because Amazon just announced their service, and there’s a lot of details to figure out. Details are very critical.
I’m pretty confident. It’s a healthy competition, and in some sense the announcement from Amazon is good for us. In China, we are really more like the pioneer, so we have to educate people. With the introduction of Amazon, it’s really reduced our cost of education, and in that sense it’s good for us.
What’s the status of your mobile operating system, Yun OS?
Wang: For the last 12 months, we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on how we can make a better mobile operating system. We’re going to have a major release around three months from now. This will more like a 3.0, by Microsoft’s standards, it’s a 3.0. We are committed, we are working very hard on that. We are working with different hardware vendors, and I’m pretty happy with the system that I can see we’re going to announce.
Wang: The mobile Internet is different from the Internet in terms of the ecosystem. With the mobile Internet, it’s not the Internet anymore. It’s a closed system. I view Apple and Android as more like AOL in the early days of the Internet. We believe we need something different. More open. We’re a big Internet company, and we definitely have the responsibility to do that.
The second thing: By working with all the hardware vendors, they also want something different from Android. I feel very strongly they need a second choice. Particularly for the hardware vendors in China, the only thing that Android gives them is the ability to produce cheap hardware. Because Android doesn’t bring the ecosystem to China. We want to work with the hardware vendors to have quality phones. The phone is such a personal device. If you just keep the cost of the phone down, eventually you hurt the user experience.
Should we expect to see an Alibaba-operated smartphone in the U.S. in the next half-year to a year?
Wang: Definitely it’s our goal (to bring a phone to the United States). I don’t think you will see any phone from Alibaba in the next six months. I really cannot say there’s a timetable for that. But we are not just operating in the China market. For anything like this, it’s global.
What about the same question from the cloud computing perspective? Could you see yourself serving North American customers with cloud computing infrastructure in North America?
Wang: Yes, but the reason and approach is probably different from what you said. We have a lot of customers that have international businesses. So we have to make sure that we provide a quality service for them. Having a server in China may not be enough. We would go with our customers. I think it’s also good to have some competition in the U.S., as well, with Amazon.
How are you preparing your own staff for the IPO and the differences of working for a public company?
Wang: We don’t have any timeline for the IPO. It’s more like being yourself. You can probably sense that from Jack Ma’s speech. That’s exactly who we are. This is a company that makes sure that what you see from the outside is what you see from the inside.
What should people know about Alibaba that we haven’t talked about yet?
Wang: Most people think of Alibaba as a business-oriented company, but we’re very committed to the technology. If you look out three years or five years from now, just like Google, technology is really the key asset for the company.
In 2008, long before we had this word called big data, in one of our strategy meetings, we knew that we were not just an e-commerce company anymore, but eventually we were going to be a data company. We believe that data is really the core asset for the company. The company is really driven by the mission and the vision, not just the business.
Previously on GeekWire: Alibaba on tour: Chinese tech giant draws a crowd in Amazon and Microsoft land