A new venture from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba may smooth the path for the launch of Pokemon Go in the world's most populous country, technology experts have told dpa.
Nintendo's smartphone "augmented reality" game, in which computer-generated Pokemon characters are superimposed onto real locations, has been a sensation this year with over 100 million downloads worldwide and an estimated daily revenue of 10 million dollars.
Nintendo's Pokemon chief executive said Tuesday the company hopes to bring the game to China and South Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But the long wait has led Chinese citizens to take desperate measures to access the game such as buying expensive foreign Apple IDs or jailbreaking their phones to change their GPS location and simulate play in other countries.
"The main reason Chinese fans cannot play Pokemon Go in China [on real Chinese streets] is because the app uses Google Maps, which is blocked in China," Kong Shan, CEO of Beijing-based app development company IT Engineer, told dpa.
Pokemon Go runs on Google App Engine, Google's cloud computing platform for developing and hosting apps in Google data centers.
China has blocked Google products since 2010, when the US company refused to comply with the government's censorship demands. Popular social media apps such as Facebook and Snapchat are also blocked in the country.
However, potential ways around the blocks could emerge on the back of the Alibaba Group's announcement last month that it has partnered with 11 companies including AppScale Systems Inc of the US to help them "leverage Alibaba Cloud’s leading cloud computing expertise ... to explore the China market."
Appscale is a Google-approved open source version of the Google App Engine that gives companies the ability to move their Google-based applications and run them anywhere they choose without the need for additional software.
"Our customers have built their business success on Google App Engine. At some point, China becomes a market that these customers desire to penetrate," Appscale CEO Woody Rollins told dpa.
"Alibaba's AliMaps has similar functionality to Google Maps, particularly as the requirements of Pokemon Go are concerned. AliMaps would be the plug-in replacement for Google Maps."
"We have concluded not only is this possible, it is do-able," Rollins told dpa exclusively.
The launch of Pokemon Go in China could lead to a massive windfall for Nintendo.
There are an estimated 563.3 million smartphone users in China, and mobile gaming is a major source of revenue for Chinese internet giant Tencent, the maker of the hugely popular WeChat app.
"I hope it happens. I travelled to Hong Kong last month mostly just to play Pokemon Go. I think there would be huge demand for the game in China," said Zhang Pengfei, 32, a Beijing-based restaurant manager.
But Kong Shan warns that it could still be difficult for foreign companies to negotiate the use of Chinese map systems.
China’s State Council announced new regulations in December that required all digital maps provided in China to be stored on servers in China, and imposes fines and penalties for violations of rules such as one that prohibits the display or storing data deemed to be illegal by the government.
"Pokemon Go makers would contract with Alibaba to use their services ... similar to what they currently do with Google. It is the AppScale software that enables Pokemon to run on Alibaba," Rollins said.
However, only third-party applications can use Appscale. Gmail, Google Maps and Google Search are all services that can only be provided by Google. They would remain inaccessible in China without the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), Rollins said.
Rollins said Appscale has not yet approached Pokemon Go executives with their China research findings and Niantic Labs, the developer of Pokemon Go, has not responded to dpa's requests for comment.
Alibaba's "AliLaunch Program" with foreign technology partners comes at a time when China is taking more steps to hinder foreign companies from openly competing with domestic companies in various industries.
China requires foreign carmakers to set up businesses with local partners to help boost the technological and operational advancement of the domestic industry.
China also restricts foreign movie imports to 34 titles a year out of concern that opening up completely to the foreign market could damage its domestic film industry.