Kingsoft: the Microsoft of China, kind of — Old China Tech 4

Wenbin Fang
Nov 7 · 6 min read

In 1978, a Hakka immigrant from Mainland China, Zhang Kaiqing (张铠卿), founded a company called 金山 (meaning “Gold Mountain”) in Hong Kong. The company was selling electronic parts first, then they started to assemble & sell IBM PC compatible computers.

Soon, Zhang Xuanlong (张旋龙), Zhang Kaiqing’s son, took over the company. They sold computers to Chinese government and to companies in Zhongguancun of Beijing — Zhongguancun used to be the eunuch cemetery a few decades ago and became China’s Silicon Valley in 1980s/1990s.

In late 1980s, Zhang Xuanlong decided to build & sell his own software. He opened an office in Shenzhen and recruited then 24-year-old Qiu Bojun, who was probably the most talented programmer in China in late 1980s.

Qiu Bojun locked himself in a hotel room to build WPS (Word Processing System), a Microsoft Word-like Chinese word processor running on MS-DOS. As the legend goes, Qiu Bojun singlehandedly wrote over 100k lines of assembly code within 14 months… During that time, Qiu was sick a few times, and each time when he was admitted into hospital, he brought a PC to continued coding there... Boy, 996 is nothing! Imagine Microsoft Word were built by a single person, even in the DOS era!

WPS was a huge success right out of the gate. It was sold 1,000 copies on the first day. WPS took over 90% Chinese desktop publishing market in only a few months, without any marketing — instant product market fit. The creator of WPS, Qiu Bojun, became very rich and he was a hero among all programmers in China back then — YOU CAN GET RICH BY WRITING CODE!!! Qiu Bojun’s boss, Zhang Xuanlong, rewarded him a big house.

Zhang Xuanlong founded Kingsoft (金山软件, Gold Mountain Software) in Zhuhai (later moved to Beijing), and handed over the company to Qiu Bojun. Zhang shifted his focus to a newly merged company Founders Group (I mentioned this company in the last post).

In 1992, over a Peking Duck dinner outside Peking University’s campus, Qiu Bojun recruited one of his big fans, then 23-year-old Lei Jun, to become employee #6 of Kingsoft. Lei Jun was another legendary programmer back then. He finished college’s 4-year computer science coursework within 2 years, and it is said that his Pascal code was so good that became sample code in the textbook.

Before joining Kingsoft, Lei Jun founded two startups which eventually failed. It is said that one of Lei Jun’s former cofounders played Mahjong with old people to win some money to fund the failing startup… We can still find Lei Jun’s code for his failed startup Yellow Rose Software https://nfil.es/a/2dtMms/ , which was to encrypt floppy disk to prevent from being pirated.

Around mid 1990s, platform shift happened — Windows came. Microsoft also entered the Chinese market. Kingsoft needed to build a Windows version WPS, but it suffered from the second-system syndrome, trying to build a very ambitious Microsoft Office-like software suite bundling tons of software together. They spent many years working on this huge project. Around 1997, the company was running out of money, and Qiu Bojun sold his big house for ~$250k (yep, the one his boss rewarded him) to fund the development.

What was worse, pirated software was everywhere. People can buy a pirated Microsoft Office CD for less than $1, then there was not reason to buy WPS for $300.

In 1998, Lenovo invested Kingsoft and saved the company from the cash problem. And Lei Jun became interim CEO of Kingsoft, because they were unable to hire a real CEO… Wait, he joined the company as an engineer in 1992 and became the CEO in 1998?!

After mid 1990s, Kingsoft also launched many smallish software and enjoyed some success — dictionary software, translation software, anti-virus software, video player software, and a few PC games. To fight Microsoft & pirated software, Kingsoft did huge rounds of patriotism-themed marketing campaigns around 2000… True patriots should support our own country’s software company! Buy Chinese software! Don’t buy pirated software! Replace “software” with “smartphone”, and you see how creative Huawei’s marketing strategy is today :)

Then Internet happened. Kingsoft was a bit late to the party. It launched joyo.com in 1999, an IT news + free software directory site, which became a pure money losing business… Then they pivoted joyo.com to an e-commerce site, inspired by Amazon. In 2004, the real Amazon bought Joyo.com to enter Chinese market. Now Joyo.com redirects to Amazon.cn.

In early 2000s, many Chinese tech companies discovered a money printing machine: online gaming, specifically, MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Kingsoft jump on the bandwagon in 2003 and launched some successful games. They didn’t need to worry about pirated software anymore, because online games don’t make money from selling physical CDs :) Eventually, it was those lucrative online games that boost Kingsoft’s revenue (70% from games) & helped it go public in 2007 in Hong Kong.

Soon after IPO, Kingsoft CEO Lei Jun resigned after staying in the same company for 15 years. He started to do some serious angel investing in 2007 and founded a smartphone company Xiaomi in 2010 at age 41, which is another incredible story, for another time :)

As a business, Kingsoft is mildly successful, with a few billion USD market cap. It has some subsidiaries, doing mobile apps, cloud services, games, and office apps. It could’ve done better, given that it was one of the earliest software companies in China and employed many super talented programmers. However, the impact of Kingsoft to the entire tech industry in China is huge. Its ex-employees have founded or invested many successful startups in the past 20 years.

Qiu Bojun is always very low key. He has retired for quite a while. On the contrary, Lei Jun is very high profile and has over 20 million Weibo followers. He has always been a workaholic. He usually leaves Xiaomi’s office after midnight nowadays. 996 is not new. It was unknown to the west until it was discovered by Mike Moritz in early 2018 (Google “996 Mike Moritz”) — ha ha ha~

About the name:

Kingsoft’s Chinese name is 金山, which was derived from the middle character of its original founder Zhang Kaiqing (张铠卿)’s name “铠”. The left part of “铠” is 钅, which means “金” (Gold). The top right part is “山” (Mountain). Thus, 金山 (Gold Mountain).

Kingsoft ex-employees call themselves 旧金山人, literally meaning Old Gold Mountain People. This name is funny, because it also means San Franciscan :) The Chinese name of San Francisco is 旧金山 (Old Gold Mountain), for the obvious reason. If San Francisco is Old Gold Mountain, then where is New Gold Mountain? It’s Melbourne in Australia!

The above screenshot is from Lei Jun’s Weibo. This photo was taken in 1998, when Lenovo invested Kingsoft. From left to right:

  • Qiu Bojun: the creator of WPS.
  • Lei Jun: former CEO of Kingsoft, and current CEO of Xiaomi
  • Yang Yuanqing: CEO of Lenovo
  • Liu Chuanzhi: Founder of Lenovo. He’s the godfather of the China tech industry. He founded Lenovo at age 40. His daughter Liu Qing is current President of DiDi (the Uber of China). His niece Liu Zhen is current COO of ByteDance (the parent company of TikTok). Really powerful family in China tech.

Ps. They really loved wearing suits!


Wenbin Fang

Written by

Founder and CEO of ListenNotes.com

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