Future tech

Apple may be embracing wireless smartphone charging, China is not, says top venture capitalist

Allen Zhu Xiaohu of GSR Ventures Management, named by Forbes’ Midas List in 2016, says wireless charging is overrated

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 4:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 10:54pm

Being a venture capitalist almost always comes with a degree of risk taking.

But there are certain risks even those who make the boldest investment decisions in China’s tech universe wouldn’t want to take: using a phone with a low battery is one, and charging a phone wirelessly is another.

So says Chinese venture capitalist Allen Zhu Xiaohu, whose investments have become a major force in pushing China into a “mobile-first” society, having been involved in convincing hundreds of millions of Chinese to hail taxi rides, order food or a rent a bike, by smartphones.

But when it comes to the average smartphone user, he says he’s still in no hurry to make the country leap into the wireless charging era, attesting that good-old-fashioned batteries and cables are here to say for a while.

“Wireless charging is overrated, as least in its current form. It will not replace batteries and cables in China any time soon even, even if it is featured by the upcoming [Apple] iPhone 8,” said Zhu, who is managing director at GSR Ventures Management, which focuses on investing in early-stage projects, speaking on the sidelines of the Yicai Tech & Innovation Conference, in Shanghai.

Apple, which is expected to unveil the 10th anniversary edition of its iconic iPhone later this year, has leaked several hints the upcoming iPhone 8 could equip wireless charging.

Zhu was listed in Forbes magazine’s Midas List in 2016 – of the best venture capitalists in high-tech and life science deal making – and is a household name in China’s entrepreneurial circles for his track record in successfully creating tomorrow’s generation of “unicorns” – start-ups companies worth more than US$1 billion.

GSR, for instance, made early-stage investment in car-hailing app Didi Chuxing, the Chinese equivalent to Uber Technologies, food-delivery app, and Ofo, the red-hot bike-rental firm that currently appears to be carpeting China’s cycle paths and sidewalks with millions of bikes.

In March, GSR led a multi-million yuan investment in Xiaodian – a Beijing-based phone battery rental firm – in a move that has made the humble battery the latest centrepiece in China’s ever-changing start-up scene.

Following Zhu’s lead, some 35 investors, including Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, have injected an estimated 1.2 billion yuan to bankroll the development of a dozen of battery rental firms since late March, according to Chinese media reports.

Chen Ou, chief executive of Chinese e-commerce firm, admitted in a recent interview that it was GSR’ investment that first brought battery rental to his attention and he then ploughed 300 million yuan into battery rental firm called ankerbox in early May.

Zhu, who still enjoys playing mobile games, said he often found himself concerned in the past when he realised his battery was low. He carries an iPhone and an iPad, dedicated for gaming, to relieve the power pressure on one device.

About 35 per cent of WeChat’s nearly 900 million users in 2016 used the messaging app developed by Tencent for more than four hours a day.

No matter how fast wireless charging and battery technologies improve, they cannot meet the Chinese desire to have enough power to always stay online
Allen Zhu Xiaohu, GSR Ventures Management

Mobile shopping, gaming, and video watching are all booming, meaning charging daily has become a necessity for many. But what could be worse than running out of charge?

“No matter how fast wireless charging and battery technologies improve, they cannot meet the Chinese desire to have enough power to always stay online,” Zhu told the South China Morning Post.

His plan is to carpet Chinese cities with all kinds of designated power bank distribution machines, allowing people to rent batteries and cables as and when they need them.

Xiaodian has set up a target of creating 3.6 million battery standby sites in China, in restaurants and shopping malls, or instance, for those in urgent need to top-up their phones.

Supporters of such businesses believe the idea will be multi-million-dollar spinner in China, while opponents say it is will be merely a fad, despite such strong current investor support.

Liang Weihong, a partner of Panda Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in China’s bike-rental major Mobike, is in fad camp.

“There are so many alternatives to battery rental,” he said. “One can always charge your phone in your office or while driving in a car. Or can simply carry your own backup battery around. Why the fuss to rent one?”