Online services expansion to continue amidst Covid-19 crisis, industry executives say

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A range of online services – from videoconferencing, remote learning and delivery to cybersecurity and video games – is expected to grow and become more deeply entrenched in people’s everyday lives, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt economies around the world.

That was the consensus reached by a panel of speakers in their discussion on Tuesday at a South China Morning Post webinar on online services, part of the company’s “Covid-19 and the Economy” series sponsored by Credit Suisse.

“It’s just like 10 years ago for e-commerce,” said panellist Timothy Yu, co-founder and chief executive of on-demand tutoring app operator Snapask.

“Once you get used to it and enjoy its efficiency, you're stuck with it.”

Online education and video gaming providers are among the biggest beneficiaries of stay-at-home measures implemented around the world this year, as millions of people have moved many of their daily business and leisure activities on the internet to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

In Hong Kong, Snapask’s Yu said a resurgence in Covid-19 cases has brought uncertainty for students about heading back to school in September.

He said these students and their parents are adjusting to this “new normal”, thanks to the availability of various remote learning resources online.

“Things cannot go back to normal,” said Yu, as he suggested that offline tutorial businesses would be affected by this continued shift to online education.

In China, which has the world’s biggest internet population at more than 900 million as of March, the online education market this year is projected to reach 435.8 billion yuan (S$87 billion), up 12.3 per cent from 2019.

With strict travel restrictions and social distancing measures in place, online games have emerged as new platforms for people to experience a shared activity with family and friends, according to Yat Siu, co-founder and chairman of gaming, blockchain and venture capital firm Animoca Brands.

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“When [stay-at-home] suddenly became more permanent, there was a shift in the attitude of game players where it wasn't just entertainment, but also social engagement,” Siu said, describing this trend as “social gaming” or “social 3.0”.

Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and Epic Games’ Fortnite, for example, have gained huge popularity at the height of the pandemic earlier this year because these games enabled users to connect with friends and build communities in the virtual world.

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“In the existing or older form of social, it was really texting and chats that we did online,” he said.

“But with gaming, you can sort of do things together. You can play sports together and compete for events. That's far more engaging.”

In China, the average daily time spent on the internet per user increased to 7.2 hours in March, compared with 5.6 hours in the same month last year, according to the China Internet Report 2020 published by SCMP Research earlier this month.

It found that people are not only engaged with online shopping and gaming, but also various public services like online health care and education.

While Covid-19 remains a global health crisis, the expansion of online services is allowing more jobseekers with the relevant skills to find new opportunities, as more offline operations go digital.

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Cybersecurity is an area that needs more talent and more investment during this digital transformation, according to Edmond Huang, the managing director, head of Hong Kong and China research as well as head of China equity strategy at Credit Suisse.

Snapask’s Yu said there are now more opportunities for online tutors because of the rising demand for remote learning.

In the video game industry, recruitment of talent is heating up, according to Animoca’s Siu.

He cited as an example the new jobs that have opened up for people to build islands on Animal Crossing .

“It’s kind of similar 20 or 30 years ago when people were being hired as web designers to make websites … And that's what's happening [now] with the virtual worlds,” Siu said.

“People are building virtual environments.”

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.