China’s embrace of the dot-com era gave birth to three internet companies that now dominate the country’s tech scene: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, together known as the BAT. Founded at the end of the 20th century, the big three have grown far beyond their core businesses—search engines, e-commerce, and social networks, respectively—to do just about everything from digital payments to cloud computing. Increasingly, they are challenging the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook as they go on global investment sprees, while shifting from copying to innovation.
But now China’s seeing its next generation of tech giants rise—born in the mobile age and focused on the newest iteration of online services, fueled by AI and sharing. The world’s most valuable tech startups now include three Chinese firms less than a decade old: news app Toutiao, group-buying service Meituan-Dianping, and ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing. The three unicorns, together known as TMD (an acronym that is also a rather rude profanity in Chinese), are the top contenders to be the new BAT. While their emergence gives consumers more choices in their smartphone-dominated lives, they also present a challenge to the older BAT, perhaps for the first time since each of those firms achieved dominance.
“For BAT, this will force them to consider… how to create competitive advantage through innovation, either by adopting emerging technologies or by creating better user experiences,” says Yu Xue, a senior analyst at market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC). “The competition in China’s internet industry has leveled up.”