In this series, I will try to share a list of product/tech gaps that tech companies need to address when approaching China as a market. The lessons are partly based on my own dumbass moments. I’ve tried to share them in a way that’s useful to western techies who know very little about the tech landscape of China.
Most makers in tech (especially non-technical product managers) hate dealing with platform compatibility issues. Exotic resolutions? Extinct devices? Old operating systems? Screw that. Usually we have the privilege to dismiss such cases as low-ROI steps. As head of product management at Leverate, I remember turning down requests to make our trading front ends run on the web browser of Blackberry. Time and time again, I was crossing my fingers for Blackberry’s market share to drop to zero before I’m proven wrong. It did happen eventually. Phew.
But when we started looking at China as a potential mega-market in 2013, finger crossing didn’t help. China has a different, very different, platform landscape across web, mobile and desktop devices. Getting quality data in English is hard (lesson #1: forget about Google Analytics- it’s useless as Google is blocked in the whole country). Re-designing or even re-testing for China is even harder. But with China being such a big market, the ROI can be huge. When I heard that a hugely successful Israeli company employs a full engineering team to maintain old versions of their products for IE6, just for China, I felt like the world has been defeated. Looking back, it was just the final stage in the journey of understanding the platform market in China: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
For those of you who are product/tech decision makers, here is a short review of the current picture, how it’s different from what you know, and what trends you can expect in the near future:
According to numbers from mid 2014, Windows XP is the winner on Chinese desktop computers with a mighty 64% market share. This will start changing very soon as Microsoft made a genius decision to offer all pirated copy owners a free upgrade to Windows 10.
If you wonder why I bothered to mention pirated copies, get that: more than 70% of the software copies in China are pirated. I’d guess that Windows XP is at 90+%. Actually, many of the world’s pirated software copies live in China (up to 40% in an article I’ve recently read). These copies amounted to almost $9b in lost revenues for software companies in 2013. Whoa!
The two most popular browsers in China are:
- IE– with thanks to the piracy induced popularity of Windows. The scary thing for web companies is that according to Microsoft, 22% of the internet users in China still use IE 6. Crappy situation for all the innovators out there. Will definitely change once the nation marries Windows 10.
- 360– the popular browser that you’ve never heard of. 360 is developed by Qihoo, a dominant internet company in China who famously owns so.com (Baidu’s main competitor in the search market) and a security product suite. Supporting 360 won’t be a nightmare, because at the core of this browser are the 2 famous rendering engines: those of IE and Chrome. According to online documentation the browser optimizes the user experience by choosing the best engine for each site. But bottom line is good news: in terms of behavior, you can expect 360 to be in line with the recent versions of IE and Chrome.
What about Chrome? It’s available on the country’s top desktop app stores. Which is why its market share in China seems to be growing fast. But it’s unclear where it’s all going, really. The desktop app stores belong to internet giants of China, who have their own “browser agenda” and aren’t afraid to punch a Western competitor through a channel they own- just refer to the case of Uber and WeChat. With Google being blocked in China, Chrome’s future growth is pretty much in the hands of these stores.
Good news for iOS developers, bad news for Android developers.
- Apple AppStore works well in China. Since Google is blocked in China, you’ll just need to make sure that your app doesn’t use any of Google’s services under the hood (e.g. Analytics). Other than that- no problems I’m aware of.
- Google Play Store won’t be there for you. It got kicked out of China in 2011. It might make a comeback soon, but don’t get too excited about it. It’s unlikely that Play Store will ever enjoy a serious market share. The internet giants of China are already all over the place, and again- they have their own “app store agenda”. So sit back and do some Chinese homework. Here’s what’s happening in terms of mobile app stores:
As you can see, several local stores (Baidu Shouji, Tencent MyApp, 360 Zhushou) lead the market. They got popular by either being pre-installed on local Android distributions or being pushed aggressively by the internet giants across their turf (browsers, internet security products, search engines etc.). What does it mean for you?
- Distribution: you have to use these stores to distribute your APK’s
- Push notifications: your approach of sending push notifications via Google Cloud Services will have to change, since Google is blocked in China and users will not be able to accept your notifications. You can choose between platform agnostic notification services, such as Pushy (non-Chinese) and JPush (Chinese), or develop for individual store services (such as Baidu Cloud Push). I’d go for services like Pushy purely for the English documentation.
If you want some additional advice on localizing mobile apps for Asia (distribution included), I recommend this blog post on the OneSky blog.
Mobile fun fact #1: rather than using a Chinese word, Chinese people use the English letters APP to refer to apps. Yes, A-P-P.
Mobile fun fact #2: China also has dozens of smaller stores, some of which are described here. Many of them steal APK’s from popular stores in China and the rest of the world. Without permission from the original developer. Then they re-distribute them as free, freemium or paid apps. APK’s are hacked so that all revenues go to the store that stole them, of course. Welcome to China. Here’s a part of an email I received from my super talented ninja friend Crystal Cheng:
“I had an app make #1 worldwide on every store (Apple, Google Play, Amazon, etc) in every country. We found out that the black market app stores in China were re-selling this on their stores without our permission. (the app was #1 on their stores but we weren’t getting any $ for it). We contacted them and told them we wanted to ‘delete and replace’ with our own official version. They were okay with that. But there was a lot of red-tape and a long process. By that time, the rankings on our SEO traffic had died down a bit and they had taken a majority of the revenue.
The catch is, there are not 1 or 2 of these black market app stores – there are a TON. You literally need an army of staff to manage it – or prioritize stores to focus on is my recommendation”