Jake's View

Cyberport is still a joke 10 years later

The government should leave hi-tech industries to the experts - venture capitalists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 3:37am

It's no Silicon Valley yet, but Cyberport is making strides to shed its image as an ill-conceived government venture, and becoming a hive for promising young technology companies in the city.

SCMP, July 29

I learned the truth about promising young technology companies in the city as an investment analyst years ago - shudder, horror. Run from them as fast as you can. How I wish I could take back those Buy recommendations I made on the likes of Atlas Industries and Conic Investments.

I can't say I hadn't been warned. If you are looking at industrials, go for the dull and simple stocks, older hands in the business had told me. The more boring the better. That's where the promise of the future lies.

Guru of the trade Peter Lynch of Fidelity Investment Management once put it this way: "I like the kind of company that any fool can run, on the grounds that sooner or later some fool will."

So when Donald the Bowtied proposed Cyberport in his 1999 budget speech, I think I had the immediate measure of this project, right from wincing at the proposed name - Cyber - which induced visions of teenage geeks absorbed in Japanese comic books. And I have never had occasion to change my mind, although Donald certainly has. The focus groups that were given the task of evaluating the idea after it had already been announced reported that they didn't see much point in it.

They said, for instance, that they didn't need a Cyberport technical library. They already had the Internet. They also didn't need shared laboratory facilities. Why give competitors an opening to spy on them? Nor did they value the technical support. Technology encompasses so wide a field of endeavour that no technical support was likely to be specific enough to be of any use.

They were wrong, of course. What was really on offer was ultra cheap rents and government "incubator" hand-outs that now run up to HK$530,000 a pop with no obligation to pay back on successful ideas. Do you want people to come to dinner? Ring the dinner bell.

Cyberport ... would have been best left as a mangrove swamp

Not that the literal version of the dinner idea has ever worked very well at Cyberport. My wife and I occasionally go there to watch a movie but when I then mention "dinner" and we then look at the echoing, deserted halls and the tired, empty eating shops, unchanged for 10 (rent free?) years, she invariably shakes her head. Cyberia, it's a lonely place.

But I digress. What is it that this Cyberport incubator attracts with its low rents? We start with the sales offices of companies clever enough to put words like "Technologies" and "Digital" in their names. Microsoft, a company obviously still in the incubation stage, is a tenant.

Then you get a host of app-writers. It's the latest thing in the advertising trade. Snare your customers while they're playing with their smartphones on the MTR, which they have been induced to do with idiot games to alleviate their boredom. Have you noticed how quiet the MTR has become in recent years? Now, I have nothing against idiot games if that is how people want to absorb themselves. That's their choice and not my business. But, equally, why should the government encourage this peculiar form of social engineering with public money?

Let's get it straight. There is nothing hi-tech here. It is distinctly low-tech. All we have is people using hi-tech advances made elsewhere for purely commercial purposes. I could probably train a monkey to play smartphone games. Does that turn the monkey into Albert Einstein?

If the government really wishes to encourage hi-tech industries, it would do best to leave the business to the experts - venture capitalists who are quite happy to see nine ideas go bust for every one that succeeds. They treat it as commerce, which it is, and not a means of transcendence to a higher state of being. So what is all this talk about Cyberport making strides to shed its image as an ill-conceived government venture?

This is no image. It's a fact. An ill-conceived government venture is what Cyberport always was, what it now is and what it will always be, a Donald folly that would have been best left as a mangrove swamp.

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