Pony Ma: Consumer, Business and Society - The CBS Trinity


This is an extract from an article written by Pony Ma, Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Tencent Holdings Ltd.

When the internet was first introduced to the public almost 30 years ago, programming was a very cool thing to be a part of. While programmers rivaled each other to determine who could write the “prettiest” code, I was more concerned with designing code that would be useful to as many people as possible.

In 1995, I set up the Shenzhen base of Fidonet and opened the gate to a new world simply with a modem and a telephone line. Fidonet, which was established in 1984, was my first encounter with the internet, and formed the basis for my understanding of all internet products, including bulletin board systems or BBSs. At the time, BBS sites were established by computer enthusiasts out of passion and spontaneity. But over time and driven by user demand, BBS platforms began offering more and more functions. That inspired me as an example of the evolution of a good internet product.

The Three Values

What makes a good internet product? First, it must have its applications, because a product creates value only when it is used.

Basic science continues to advance beyond the limits of human cognition and empowers us with greater capabilities. But these capabilities, being constantly improved and accumulated, need to be applied in real-world scenarios to actually make our work and life better. Fidonet connected people around the globe and allowed information exchange and relationship-building to happen. This new application scenario brought the computer to life for most users. 

Second, new values are created through the network, which takes shape and evolves when there are enough product users. This is like good literary work, which is often interpreted differently by readers beyond the author's original intention.

The same is true of an internet product. Often creators don’t realize how people are going to use their programs until they see them in action. The greater the number of users, the more application scenarios and methods that can be explored and the more innovations and creations that can occur. Close observation of everyday life allows us to discover more and gain inspiration from which we can develop new functions and drive the product’s evolution.

In the few decades after Fidonet, we witnessed the rapid development of the internet and have been lucky to play a part in its evolution. The products Tencent has created, like QQ and Weixin (and its international version WeChat), are the result of collaboration between internet professionals and users. Both parties have been involved in the exciting creative process, which is ever-changing.

We identified the third value – crossover  when developing QQ and Weixin. Many innovations in the tech industry are a result of crossover applications. When the technical capabilities of humans develop to a certain stage, crossovers will give rise to new application scenarios. For example, QQ is a crossover application of the instant messaging tool to the internet domain, and the nature of Weixin is in fact a mailbox, meaning it is the fusion of the mailbox and the mobile internet. 

The CBS Trinity of Consumer, Business and Society

In front of us is a blue sea of crossover innovation opportunities driven by technology. In the third decade of the 21st century, two changes are taking place at the same time: One is the rapid development of technical capabilities thanks to scientific and technological progress, including the cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, biotechnology, new energy and more. The second is changes in demand as a result of social, economic, cultural and technological development.

Currently, we see more and more industries being digitalized and made smarter. The digital world is embraced by all people including the old, the young and people with disabilities. The change in the main service object of the internet transitioned from consumer to business, and now to society.

This evolution is indicative of a new stage in which the demands of society are significantly different from those in the past. Social problems concerning different industries and different groups of people have been piling up with complex underlying causes, and to find their solutions is an arduous task. We need to have a global perspective and find the right direction to make efforts on the basis of a profound understanding of the pain points in our society.

For example, in our project for rural development, a mobile internet toolkit drawing on the connectivity of Weixin was created to help rural revitalization. Here villagers can customize Weixin public accounts for their villages and facilitate the digitalization of rural areas.

Since the proposal of the Industrial Internet” strategy, Tencent has become involved in a lot of industries and their impact on society. This is especially the case as we developed public emergency products and services during the pandemic. We felt commercialization was never a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing many of the public demands, especially in education and healthcare. 

This year, we set up the Sustainable Social Values Organization with a new lab cluster focused on social issues, including elderly care, education innovation, technology and ecology, carbon neutrality, and rural revitalization. We have also seen our team's abilities to act and create solutions in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and in disaster relief after rains deluged Henan Province.

During this process, we have discovered more possibilities for crossover innovation. One example is Tencent Doc, which played a remarkable role in the Henan downpours. As a life-saving documentation tool, it enabled large-scale online collaboration as different rescue forces spontaneously used it for information synchronization. Our technical team also tapped into new application scenarios for the future when addressing demands and problems in our society.

(Read how people turned to technology to help victims of devastating flood)

To help users hear more clearly, our technicians revitalized Tencent Meeting, or VooV Meeting for global users, with a new-generation real-time audio technology, Tencent Ethereal AI technology. Recently, this noise reduction technology was used in the artificial cochlea to improve sound clarity and comprehension by 40 percent. The Tencent Ethereal Audio Lab also developed an app called MED-Tencent Hearing in conjunction with an artificial cochlea manufacturer. When used while watching television, the rate of sound recognition can be improved by 66 percent.

At the beginning of 2020, we developed a new COVID-19 image diagnosis model with Zhongnan Hospital Affiliated with Wuhan University, which allowed more than 24,000 patients to receive pulmonary CT diagnoses in just two months. This diagnostic tool was even mounted on vehicles for rapid screening. New technology demands have accelerated the application of AI in the field of medical treatment. We also found inspiration from the rescue in the Henan deluge earlier this year. We are looking at the possibility of developing a national first aid network that can incorporate all first responders and other rescue forces from society. We have the capability to build such a platform.

Today, there are unmet demands from society in areas such as rural revitalization, adaptation for the aging population, carbon neutrality and more. From the perspective of solving the pain points in society, we can find inspiring application scenarios with both new and existing technologies. Unlike the past when innovation was based on products, in the future we need to broaden our view with a global perspective to find systematic solutions.

In the last two decades, the total number of internet users in China has reached 1.01 billion, and the network penetration rate is now 71.6 percent. We make this proposal of sustainable social value innovation as a company-level strategy and set up a specific department with RMB 100 billion investment, because it is where our responsibility lies, and where the road to future innovation leads.

Stay Focused

In our industry, immersion and focus can bring discoveries and breakthroughs. Presented with a variety of demands, we need to identify those that are the most crucial, as well as those that show the most promise in the real world. The ability to recognize opportunity can only be established when we engage ourselves in the process of serving users. We will prioritize solving the users’ biggest pain point because that could become the best opportunity to innovate. As a best practice, concentrate on something that is worthy of being solved with the resources at your fingertips. 

Tencent is pragmatic. For many years we have insisted on doing the right thing and solving what needs to be solved. Given the CBS trinity and the blue sea of crossover innovation, the company will embrace new opportunities wholeheartedly.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the acceleration of digitalization has aggravated social problems such as the wealth gap. The economy has suffered great pressure and the aging population continues to grow, thanks to advancements in healthcare. Faced with tremendous changes, the internet industry is rethinking the future. But my faith in the power of technological innovation and kindness remains unchanged. The internet has helped bridge the gap between people since its birth, and innovation has been the key driver for its development.

In the past 23 years, Tencent has been successful thanks in part to our goal of placing user value before anything else. We have flourished as we continue to serve our customers and society. The current industry restructuring allows us to address the problems that we have neglected due to rapid development in the past, and rethink the role that a company should undertake in society.

As we contemplate the question of how to better use and unleash our existing capabilities, how to apply them to more scenarios needed by people, and ways to create value for society, we are excited knowing the right application scenarios for our capabilities can be an endless journey, but also a delightful process of innovation and creativity.