With years of experience catering to budget users with entry-level phones, Chinese app-makers are taking on the Indian smartphone market and its hundreds of millions of new customers.
Ajinkya Kolwankar, 25 and self-employed in Mumbai, recently deleted the Facebook app on his phone in favor of UC Browser, an app made by a subsidiary of Chinese tech goliath Alibaba. The browser still allowed him to surf Facebook, but he found it used less battery power and data than the proprietary app.
Many Indian smartphone users like Kolwankar are familiar with the app. According to web traffic analysis tool StatCounter, it is the number-one mobile browser in India as of last month, capturing nearly half of the market share.
With its launch in overseas app stores in 2009, UC Browser was one of the first Chinese apps to go abroad. Now, as China’s app markets have become saturated and competition has become fiercer, more and more tech companies are aiming overseas to seek opportunities in emerging markets such as India.
When it comes to smartphones, India resembles the China of five years ago: A vast population that has already discovered mobile internet but still has enormous growth potential. Estimates show that India had roughly 400 million internet users — about three-quarters of which used mobile devices — by the end of 2015, up 49 percent from the year prior. This is a staggering number, but it also means that some 70 percent of India’s population have yet to go online.
India also has certain benefits that the Chinese market is losing. “Because there are so many products in China, customer loyalty is low,” said Du Xiaolei, director of marketing at SHAREit Technologies Co. Ltd., a company that ventured abroad in 2013. She told Sixth Tone it costs less to get new users in emerging markets, and it’s easier to keep them.
The company’s app, SHAREit, is a cross-platform file-sharing tool and one of the most popular Chinese mobile apps in India. Both SHAREit and UC Browser consistently rank in the top 10 for India’s Google Play app store, according to tracking website App Annie.
Shameen Prashantham, associate professor of international business and strategy at China Europe International Business School, told Sixth Tone that India provides a better climate for foreign internet companies than China. There are fewer restrictions, and there are also no dominant local players like “BAT” he said, referring to Chinese internet giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
One reason Chinese apps like UC Browser and SHAREit are successful in India is that they provide features Indian consumers appreciate. According to a report by tech outlet 36kr.com, 75 percent of Indian people buy a budget phone with low-end internal components, and internet speeds in the country are also a limiting factor.
Rehan Hooda, a 23-year-old tech reporter at FirstPost, one of India’s most popular digital media websites, said he is a huge fan of UC Browser because it offers “all the essentials,” including easy use on budget phones, a desktop mode for apps, and low mobile memory usage.
Hooda said he also used a cleaning tool by another Chinese tech company, Qihoo 360. Its main draw, he said, was that it allowed its users to maximize their phones’ capabilities.
For now, it remains a challenge for Chinese companies to expand their popularity in India beyond apps one might classify as “tools,” according to a report by market research and consulting firm iResearch. Jiang Yanli, public relations manager at Fotoable, an app company that has 15 apps in India, told Sixth Tone by email that all its products in the country are tools, adding that the popularity of such apps is not hindered by cultural differences.
The focus on simple tools has limited the user base of most Chinese app developers to budget customers. Interviewees indicated that when they moved away from budget phones to more powerful models, they used Chinese apps less in favor of more resource-intensive alternatives.
Another challenge facing Chinese tech companies is localization. Hooda said Chinese apps should be “truly local” to the extent that there is no sign of their Chinese origins. “Apps cannot have any Chinese advertising or even a hint of Chinese, because it’s something people can’t understand and that scares them off,” he said.
And then there’s privacy. Karan Pradhan, a 32-year-old deputy executive news producer at FirstPost, said he is aware of Chinese censorship and is concerned about the close relationship between Chinese companies and the government, though he admitted these concerns also stand true for American companies.
Hooda, too, conceded that there are some concerns about data in the context of Chinese hackers and privacy, referring to a report about the Indian army’s privacy concerns with Chinese electronics manufacturer Xiaomi.
“But, ultimately, budget users don’t care,” he said.
(Header image: A vendor (center) uses a mobile device while waiting for customers at a garment store in Mumbai, India, Feb. 28, 2015. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images/VCG)