jack ma alibaba

Jack Ma is dreaming even bigger.

The Alibaba executive chairman, already head of the world’s largest retail platform, wants to make sure the group is the leader in not just online retail, but also off-line, cloud computing and any other disruptive technology that comes down the pipeline.

He’s got a good start: Ma oversees an e-commerce ecosystem that has more than 430 million annual active buyers — one out of every three people in China has made a purchase through one of the company’s marketplaces.

But it’s a platform that’s in dramatic flux as technology advances and e-commerce mixes with brick-and-mortar retail, entertainment, cloud computing, health care, supply chain savvy, micro lending and more. In a sign of the times, Ma noted in his annual letter to shareholders that mobile accounted for 75 percent of the marketplaces’ total revenues last quarter, up from a percentage in single digits before the company’s initial public offering just over two years ago.

(Alibaba broke records, raising $25 billion in its offering, but has seen relatively modest stock gains during its time on Wall Street. The firm’s shares slipped 1.4 percent to $102.15 Thursday, making a total gain of 10.2 percent since it began trading on the open markets.)

Ma expects the changes — and growth — to continue, leading to new challenges.

“With e-commerce itself rapidly becoming a ‘traditional business,’ pure e-commerce players will soon face tremendous challenges,” he said.

While online sales are still reordering the retail world, tech is an industry that generally moves much faster, feeding on both itself and constant change. It’s little surprise to hear one of the titans of the realm talk about the disrupters being disrupted themselves.

So Ma is continue to push Alibaba to reinvent and keep up with a still-rapidly evolving world.

“We are not merely trying to shift buy/sell transactions from off-line to online, nor are we changing conventional digital marketing models to squeeze out a little additional profit,” Ma said. “We are working to create the fundamental digital and physical infrastructure for the future of commerce, which includes marketplaces, payments, logistics, cloud computing, big data and a host of other fields.”

Alibaba — like its U.S. competitor Amazon — has moved decisively in the area of cloud computing and now hosts 35 percent of all the web sites in China.

Moving computing power to the cloud is just a part of a much larger picture.

“Throughout history, technological disruptions have followed similar trajectories: 20 years of technological disruption followed by 30 years of further rapid change as new technologies are applied throughout society,” Ma said. “The Internet revolution is a historical inflection point, much like when electricity was introduced, and it may have an even greater impact. Over the next 30 years, with computing power as the new ‘technology breakthrough’ and data as the new ‘natural resource,’ the landscape of retail, financial services, manufacturing and entertainment will be transformed.”

Futurist Edie Weiner, president and chief executive officer of The Future Hunters, agreed with Ma on the broad themes reshaping the economy, but said it was all happening more rapidly than he suggests.

“We use the word ‘templosion’ — the implosion of time around even the biggest of things,” Weiner said. “We can do with genetic engineering in a couple days what it would have taken nature hundreds of thousands of years to do. It doesn’t matter where we’re looking, we’re looking at implosion, this is the geometric shortening of time.”

Weiner said the future wouldn’t have just one Internet of things — where billions of devices are all communicating — but many networks of that scale.

“Their platforms are going to be competing with each other for connectiveness,” she said.

Alibaba — like Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook — is expanding rapidly into a host of areas, collecting more data points as it makes its bid to be a cornerstone of the next economic age.

At the very least, Ma looks ahead and sees much more for Alibaba.

“In 20 years, we hope to serve two billion consumers around the world, empower 10 million profitable businesses and create 100 million jobs,” he wrote to shareholders. “This will be an even more difficult journey than the one behind us.”

And that might be understating the challenge.

Weiner said it’s possible to see the path ahead, but not to guess who will get there first.

“They can call the future successfully, but any company can make a stupid decision one day to the next,” she said.

Alibaba at least has a broad base to work off of as it figures out the future and is working on ways to knit together online and off-line retailing as it builds out its larger network of associated businesses. The Hangzhou-based firm surpassed three trillion renminbi, or $424.09 billion, in annual gross merchandise value on its online marketplaces last year. That represents a three-fold increase in three years and makes Alibaba the largest retail ecosystem in the world, according to the company’s reckoning.

Alibaba’s own investments in brick-and-mortar include $4.6 billion in electronics chain Suning Appliance Co. Ltd. last year and $692 million in Chinese department store operator Intime Retail the year before. An Alibaba spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s omnichannel retail strategy. (Of course, it isn’t alone in pushing into brick-and-mortar — rival Amazon is ramping up its omnichannel strategy as well.)

Addressing the importance of online and off-line integration, ceo Daniel Zhang in a separate letter said, “The most important opportunity on the horizon is not growing online sales in isolation but rather helping traditional retailers upgrade into a brand new retail model.”

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