If you thought you had mastered all the abbreviations, short forms and codes associated with the fast-moving telecommunications industry, you may need to think again. Get ready for V2oIP - that is video and voice over Internet protocol - and the "Vfone". The recent launch in Hong Kong of this new broadband-based video phone service is all set to provide us with the ultimate in being connected.
Behind the introduction of the service and accompanying handsets is Gerald Ma, director of CK Communications Limited, who also holds a number of other director-level posts within the Cheung Kong group of companies. "We hope to kick start an evolution but also a revolution in the use of video telephony for businesses and in the home, making the Vfone part of our daily lives," he enthuses. Pointing out how fifteen years ago the mobile phone was rare while email and SMS messaging had not been heard of, Mr Ma's goal is to lead the next major trend.
He predicts that, within a few years, every phone will have video capability and, with around one million Hong Kong households already linked to a broadband network - one of the prerequisites for connection - and 400,000 of those having relatives based overseas, the market here is set to take off. The beauty of the new Vfone system is its simplicity. "It's just like dialling with a normal phone," explains Mr Ma, "you don't need to be a 'techie' and it takes less than five minutes to learn. Each handset comes with an A/V jack so you can connect to your TV or video if you want a larger picture or to record a conversation so there is unlimited flexibility. It's just the sort of thing SMEs with production overseas have been crying out for. "
"The mental challenge is in being able to switch from investor relations to advertising, securitisation to sales topics"
Mr Ma has seen the benefits up close. After giving a new Vfone as a gift to his family members abroad, his own children have been able to show their kindergarten artwork to their grandparents, uncles or aunts and even get help with homework!
Spearheading such a major project, it would be natural to assume Mr Ma had a background in telecom engineering. In fact, he describes himself as a generalist with broad experience in the business world since high school and university years in Vancouver. "I'm someone who likes to know and learn about a bit of everything. Any topic or any conversation between family and friends, I want to be able to contribute. I'll try anything at least once and encourage others close to me to do the same."
Initial training as an international investment and private banker gave him a strong grounding in finance and asset management but he felt, as an advisor and intermediary for his banking clients, he was missing out on the real excitement of assuming the rewards and risks as principal in major deals. A more in-depth understanding of other less specialised industries was also something he sometimes wished for. When the opportunity came up to join Cheung Kong in 1996 it was a chance too good to miss. He started there in the sales and marketing of property and has never looked back.
"It was a breath of fresh air, full of exciting dynamics, working with all types of people in selling a mass market product. The communication was a lot more down to earth than in banking!" he recalls. A third learning experience came when Mr Ma moved to CK Communications which was started three years ago and is essentially a laboratory for research and finding practical applications for new breakthroughs in technology.
"The Internet became my friend," he says, "I came across new technology, was associating with engineers and had to learn their language which is very specialised."
With his additional group responsibilities, Mr Ma finds that no two days are the same and he must understand something about everything. If he has five meetings lined up, each may have a radically different agenda and content. "The mental challenge is in being able to switch from investor relations to advertising, securitisation to sales topics. If you don't like being a generalist, you won't like doing it," he asserts.
In offering words of advice for today's graduates, Mr Ma observes that some admire the big name companies and certain industries for the money they make and their international prestige but overlook the hard work it takes to achieve what they do."You have to develop passion and perseverance," he comments. "At the start be prepared to handle even menial tasks professionally with a proper attitude. This builds character and will help you withstand the pressures as your responsibilities grow."
Major players in the telecom industry have long realised that mainland China must be regarded as a number of separate local markets. It cannot be treated with one mindset or one approach. Flexibility is the watchword and Hong Kong people have to accept that their lead over their compatriots is lessening. Education levels in China have improved markedly and there are now plenty of well-qualified professionals in the field. Management grade staff are still sought but must continue to work hard to maintain an edge.
For the Vfone, CK Communications will use Hong Kong as a base and showcase. As the local market increases usage of the new technology, they will build partnerships in China and globally as demand dictates.