Mapping China's byways: Tencent street view fleet heads down new roads

Internet giant takes leaf from Google's success in effort to dislodge rival Baidu from top place in increasingly competitive mobile-map market

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 January, 2014, 5:07am

Tencent, Asia's largest internet company, is expanding its maps function by dispatching a fleet of camera cars to create the most comprehensive street view on the mainland.

Since it launched about a year ago, Tencent's street view boasts more than 100 cities and countless sights and landmarks.

But Tencent has some catching up to do. Google launched its iconic street view in 2007, and today Google Maps dominates the mobile app market, with more than half of all smartphones in the world using a version of it.

Locally, Tencent's main rival, Baidu, runs the most popular mobile map app.

On the mainland, whose streets are off limits to Google's quirky street-view camera cars, Tencent has dispatched Volkswagen Polos carrying up to US$90,000 worth of cameras.

Even a lack of roads is no barrier to Tencent's engineers, who have developed novel ways to gather images in remote areas, such as mounting cameras on boats. The result is a collection of unique panoramas of China such as magnificent views of Mt Everest, the Tumen River on the border with Russia and North Korea, and vistas of the South China Sea.

"Tencent street view is one of our most important product differentiations," said Jerry Huang, director of investor relations.

To protect privacy, Google Maps blurs human faces and car number plates, and allows users to flag inappropriate photos to be blurred. Google has also censored photos of military bases, scientific research centres and other security-sensitive areas.

Despite Google's censorship, many photos have surfaced around the world showing protests, robberies, people urinating in public and other incriminating activities. Because of "the great firewall", no such photos have received much attention in the mainland media.

Tencent did not respond to questions regarding possible national security concerns, but said that human faces and number plates would be blurred out.

Baidu, China's largest internet search engine, launched its own street view-like program, Total View, in August. So far, it is web-based only and accessible in just a few large cities.

For now, street view functions are seen mostly as an entertaining but less important function to map apps. The latter include highly detailed maps and satellite views ranging in scale from the entire country down to specific addresses on city streets.

Baidu Maps is accessed by more than 200 million mobile users, and no doubt Tencent hopes to gain a new lead with its enhanced street views.

WeChat is Tencent's increasingly popular messaging app and includes a map function that has solidified Tencent's position as a key player in social media.

Tencent is beefing up other elements of its mobile portfolio, such as its recent US$100 million investment in the taxi reservation app, Didi Taxi, whose Didi Map is based on the original Baidu map.