As Tencent Holdings’ share price went through HKD420 this week, the massive social media operator passed through the USD500 billion capitalisation level. Only five other tech companies – Apple, Alphabet (google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook have achieved that level of market cap.
And Alibaba’s not far behind, while internet company and artificial intelligence specialist, Baidu, is on the way up, although at a more modest USD83 billion.
Tencent has multiple revenue sources but is best known outside China for its WeChat, the social media mobile messaging platform that has nearly a billion monthly users.
Meanwhile, like Amazon, Alibaba is going downstream, acquiring shares in major bricks and mortar retailers like Auchan Retail, one of the world’s top five food retailers, along with other smaller outlets. What does it bring to the party? Data.
In fact all of these major tech companies are primarily in the data business.
How is this interesting to the aviation industry? Because data will soon transform that industry. Or, more accurately, the massive online retailers and data aggregators – who know far more about airline passengers than any airline can ever dream of – will transform the industry.
Using a combination of advanced artificial intelligence and data analytics, they are developing the power and market coverage to ride roughshod over almost any form of consumer service.
It is these non-aviation organisations who are spending massive amounts on artificial intelligence. Even the best and smartest airlines are in no position to compete with the vast resources and commitment that the big tech companies are throwing at this activity.
The Chinese companies are getting a pretty big tailwind from Beijing, at least in principle. In Jul-2017 the State Council issued a “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan”. The strategy is to make China the “premier global AI innovation center” by 2030 – by which time the industry should be worth over USD150 billion, it estimates. Inevitably this has a strong overtone of defence thinking, but it also has the power to transform the balance between US and China advances in the area, as well as carrying along with it major changes in the commercial arena.
As part of the Plan, China will set up AI training bases to ensure adequate skills are available.
In the travel area this should ensure Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent continue to expand their global coverage. Interesting times.