(This post was first published on Forbes)
I’ve previously written about the Golden Age of Gadgets and how China has propelled it. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the annual international show for consumer electronics held in Las Vegas, this only affirmed my position on China. China remains a dominating presence when it comes to innovative tech. It’s a complex story to tell because Chinese companies, and innovation, come in many shapes and forms, but broadly speaking Chinese companies at the event fell into four buckets:
1. The Old Guard: Retaining A Distinct Chinese Flavor
Most of these still have the legacy style and name of their Chinese origins but have become established companies. Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE are good examples. While innovation at this scale tends to be incremental, Huawei unveiled the world’s first mobile integrating Amazon’s Alexa voice service and Lenovo released a nicer Amazon Echo.
2. The Globalists: Blending In With Global Brands
These younger Chinese companies have global identities. They are mostly indistinguishable from their international counterparts. Only the prevalence of Asian staff, and at times limited English fluency, gave them away.
These included the Chinese companies that dominate the drones and robotics sections; DJI is the most famous, but every drone company I talked to turned out to be Chinese as well. Robots ranged from toys to STEM kits to domestic robots. Various “companion” robots were also roaming the floor.
This means that Chinese companies are not merely working for others, soldering components to put in a plastic box anymore. They can create complex products with attractive design, including advanced software and algorithms, like this modular robot that could have starred in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and would impress even the best robotics research labs.
The smartphone giant Xiaomi (branded “MI”) also made its first appearance at the show. They announced several new products… for China. While it shuns Western markets for now, Xiaomi is already selling products in 20 countries, including India, Indonesia and Brazil.
3. The Shenzhen Army: Canaries In the Tech Coal Mine
The U.S. had the largest number of exhibitors at the show with 1,755 companies. But China came a close second behind Team USA, at 1,575. At least 700 Chinese exhibitors came from the Chinese Silicon Valley area of Shenzhen alone.
These companies – generally OEMs and ODMs – fell into a spectrum ranging from pure contract manufacturers for electronic commodities like battery packs, to somewhat original designs of classic smart devices, to companies making innovative products in their own right.
Chinese factory owners have understood that the product value chain offers better returns as you go up from assembly jobs to full production, design, branding and distribution. Many are investing in new skills, and newcomers are going “fabless,” focusing on product creation without owning factories themselves – just like many global brands.
As a result, those companies act as a kind of canary in the technology coal mine: they define which products are transitioning from innovations to commodities.
Among those: power banks, smart bands, security / doorbell / action cameras, toy drones, robot toys, smart watches, bluetooth tags and basic VR headsets. This year, very few stands showed hoverboards. Too 2015.
4. The Next Innovators: “True” Global Innovation
I kept the best for the end: the next wave of Chinese innovators – companies whose products could stand their ground on a global stage and participate, like DJI, in rejuvenating China’s image.
Some had original products even if not all that high tech; I came across a wall socket adaptor that adds WiFi with Alexa and Siri voice control from your smartphone, a smart pet feeder on wheels and a UV device to keep your shoes odorless.
Chinese “deep tech” products also made a showing. A nail art printer attracted droves in the Beauty Tech section, and several Chinese startups on the HAX booths received strong attention (disclosure: I’m a partner at the HAX accelerator) HAX had 82 startups exhibiting – the single largest private group in the show. Among them were the first consumer 3D camera that can record 3D audio, a wearable tracker for erectile dysfunction and the first low-cost industrial robot arm under $10,000. For the price, it even includes advanced computer vision.
Hardware By Any Other Name
Chinese companies are fully aware that their country doesn’t have the lustre of the U.S., Japan or Germany for technology. To mitigate this, Chinese companies are doing their best to blend in. Most go for English names, and aim for better design and better quality. They appear to be from everywhere, and nowhere.
Future CES events will prove whether China or its tech hub Shenzhen will become – like Japan or South Korea – synonymous with quality. Donald Trump’s campaign promises might then be fully realized, with a new label: “Designed in Shenzhen, Assembled in California.”