21 August 2019

Routers the next big thing for internet firms

Many broadband users must have had the experience of setting up their routers in the office or at home, which is undoubtedly discomfiting. You have to input a set of IP addresses for the configuration process, and if you are not fortunate enough to be knowledgeable about computer networking or lack the patience to read the user’s manual, then it will take you almost an eternity to finish the process. This is especially the case with Chinese users as most of the user interfaces are in English.

Getting a router that is cheap and easy to use is a daunting task in the country, as the industry has been carved up by just a few producers and little improvement has been made to enhance cost-performance in the past decade despite the shifting landscape elsewhere in the broader internet domain.

But change is coming.

A start-up called Jikejike {極科極客} launched China’s first smart router, the HiWiFi {極路由}, a year ago, and it has already made a lot of waves in the business, the Southern Weekend reports. More than 300,000 of the routers have been sold so far while the firm has attracted a US$10 million investment from an overseas venture capital fund.

Jikejike’s initial success has spurred major contenders to launch competing products. Last September Baidu (BIDU.US) rolled out its unique USB flash drive-like router — once it is plugged to an internet-connected computer, the router can immediately transmit Wi-Fi signals for other users to share.

Qihoo 360 (QIHU.US) has unveiled a similar on-the-go product. Xunlei, an online video hosting site known for its popular video download software, began the trial use of its smart router late last month and plans an official launch in June at an introductory price of not more than 350 yuan (US$57.10). Other big names including Xiaomi, Leshi and Huawei are said to be rushing their own router models.

All these new routers feature a user-friendly interface, most of which support functions like “plug and use”, offline download, bandwidth management, file backup, et cetera.

Yet making routers easy to use is just one aspect of the business. Smart routers can play a bigger role and become a game-changer, a fact that is slowly dawning on internet players who are always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing.

Picture a family spending an evening together in the living room: Mom and Pop are watching their favorite TV series on a set-top box. The little kids are boisterously trying to out-point each other on an online game on the iPad, while the eldest among the siblings is using her smartphone to browse Weibo. Various devices and applications are involved, but they all have to rely on a router to access the internet.

A router serves as the ultimate valve that controls the flow of data from the internet to a household and vice versa.

Analysts say it’s just like a master switch, and anyone who can get a hand on the new generation of routers can marshal and harness the data traffic. This is especially true in this era where the focus of the internet is shifting to a cluster of devices at home or in the workplace.

And as most appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines are becoming smarter, that is, getting connected to the Web, routers are bound to play a bigger role.

With this trend, internet companies can not only tap new income streams but also turn the smart routers into a platform that can command and access all devices and forge a brand-new ecosystem.

It’s true smart routers need to be smarter to integrate various devices and be more than just a peripheral equipment that sits in the corner of a living room. Tech firms have a long way to go to tap the full potential of the device with more innovative features, applications and strategies.

But for the time being, the race is about how fast they can offer cheaper and user-friendly routers to consumers to make way into their homes and boost their market share.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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