Making its bid to keep up with Alibaba and Tencent, Le Eco this week pulled back the curtain on the latest iteration of its entertainment-driven ecosystem – hence the change of name late last year from Le TV to Le Eco.
While Facebook is building out from its social media platform, the Chinese firms come from different angles.
Alibaba’s universe is expanding from commerce (ranging from conventional home shopping through to cinema ticket sales and movie merchandise.) Tencent leverages the phenomenal flexibility of its WeChat messaging platform, which hosts literally millions of third party developed apps and takes users seamlessly from restaurant reviews to booking the taxi to get there.
Le Eco puts entertainment and sports software at the center of its ecosystem along with a range of hardware that makes Amazon’s device range look puny. The company’s kit stretches from smart TV sets and set-top-boxes through to mobile phones and, coming soon, automobiles.
Wednesday afternoon at the “Le Sports Stadium” in a far flung North Western suburb of Beijing was the setting for the launch of Le Eco’s four latest products. The event was as much a fan convention, and a near religious experience as a trade presentation.
There were triple layers of security outside the stadium, a 5,000-seat venue that at other times of the year hosts top level sports events and major touring music acts. Inside, the hall was decked out with five giant presentation screens and a black carpeted runway big enough for a car.
The audience ranged from Chinese gents in suits and ponytails to younger fans, live blogging tech journalists and geeks with placards. The trade press had flown in from as far as Vancouver and Mumbai.
With its captive and captivated audience, Le Eco also announced high profile executive hires (from Samsung) and claimed record levels of content subscriptions, sparked partly by its hardware sales events and by its in-house developed TV shows.
Company founder Jia Yueting put on a Steve Jobs-like presentation: confident, wearing a simple black pullover, and wandering lonely on an empty stage. He took a distinctly personal approach, and made play of facing down his critics. While repeatedly bashing Apple and its products – “Tim Cook, what was he thinking (with a camera that poor) – Jia talked up a vision that seems currently impossible, but is apparently just over the horizon.
He described a universe where software and connectedness are more valuable than hardware, a utopia where companies work together and where products are environmentally responsible.
In launching the latest generation of Le Eco smart phones, which he described as “flagship killers,” he showed off high specs handsets that are priced substantially lower than the global brand name competition and cheaper too than the previous range of Le Eco phones they replaced.
In Jia’s “ecotopia” hardware are sold for “negative profits,” as a means to drive business to the software and content businesses. And it seems to be working. The group’s first quarter profits were up by 25% according to a filing on Wednesday.
The new phones have the processing power to deliver nine channels of live TV. They also come with the option of a live sports homepage, something that makes more sense of the group’s headlong rush into sports rights and the launch of a LeSports division that recently announced the raising of over $1 billion of new capital.
The presentation also included more smart TVs and virtual reality equipment – the phones have high res, retina screens that eliminate VR headaches, Jia claimed – but the undoubted highlight was tangible evidence of the company’s move into the automotive business.
The full launch will be saved for next week’s Beijing Auto Show. But the Wednesday performance was more than a tease. Not only did Jia use voice controls to drive a concept car out of its garage and then park itself, he made a strong case for the overlap between the connected universe of phones, TVs and VR and the new world of Internet-connected cars.
The vision is not just of another electric vehicle, but a car universe spanning ride sharing, shared parking (soon available in 7 Chinese cities) and even a crowd-sourced brand name: Le SEE. Its Yibao ride sharing app claims 40 million downloads and 600,000 daily users. Ding Lei, head of the Le Auto department, called it: “Not just a smart, electric vehicle, but also a shared experience.”
That experience appears to extend to industrial cooperation too. Ding said that Le Eco had filed over 800 auto industry patents in the past two years and was working with both Aston Martin and Farraday Futures as strategic partners.
Jia admits that Le Eco is ambitiously trying to be disruptive in several industries at once. The danger of pushback comes not from Facebook, Amazon, Netflix or Google (collectively known by financial investors as FANGS), but that Le Eco needs to scale up and keep up with its Chinese Internet rivals, the BANTS, short for Baidu Alibaba Netease and Tencent.