China is fast-becoming the second-largest market in terms of downloads for many developers including companies like Rovio, but it lags behind in terms of monetization. The country came in just behind the U.S. in page views on Google’s AdMob advertising network in July, according to statistics the network shared at an iOS developer conference in China this past weekend.
The promise is there, but how do mobile developers take advantage of it?
Over the past two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve had the chance to talk with several mobile developers like High Noon-maker Happylatte, PapayaMobile, PopCap Games and other companies being incubated in former Google China head Kai-Fu Lee’s incubator Innovation Works.
It’s an incredibly complex and different market from the U.S., but here are a few insights into developing and marketing iOS and Android apps there:
1) Android may be the long-term bet, but iOS is showing surprising resilience in spite of lower incomes here:
iOS has leapt up the ranks of mobile search referrals to Baidu in recent months and sends more queries to the Chinese search engine than Android does, according to a source at the search company familiar with the data. Google’s AdMob also said that close to three-fourths of the pageviews on its network in China are from iOS as compared to Android during the same presentation that the picture at the top is from. Nokia is still the biggest platform in China though.
There aren’t good public estimates available on the actual number of consumers carrying Android and iOS devices considering that there are many “Shanzhai” or knock-off phones that are based on Android but are incompatible with the platform. Plus, many people bring phones into the country through relatives and friends abroad. The country’s largest carrier China Mobile — which doesn’t even sell the iPhone — said it had 7.44 million iPhones on its network in its last quarterly earnings call.
Dianxin, one of the makers of a local variant of Android known as Tapas, estimates there are 12 to 15 million Android devices currently circulating in the country. Many other local mobile-focused companies like PapayaMobile say they’re building products assuming there are at least 10 million iOS and 10 million Android phones circulating in the country.
An unlocked iPhone 4 costs 4,999 renminbi here, or roughly $780, well above its American price and even farther above the discounted price with a two-year plan that most U.S. consumers choose. That is about twice what the average new Android phone from Samsung, Motorola or HTC retails for at 2300 to 2600 renminbi or $360 to $410, according to China-focused research firm ZDC. Most people buy their phones unlocked — and often at full retail price — then pick a carrier afterward.
Apple is an incredibly revered brand in China. Based on observation, it’s hard to say there is a more potent and accessible status symbol for Chinese consumers with newfound discretionary income than the iPhone. There is a reason there are fake Apple stores here. There is a reason why Apple’s newly appointed chief executive Tim Cook said in the company’s last earnings call that China brought in $3.8 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter and $8.8 billion in revenue in the fiscal year to date.
Apple has also gotten away with a lot more than many other Western consumer technology companies which have come here only to fall flat on their faces. Unlike Google, Apple maintains a favorable relationship with the Chinese government. It likely censors sensitive content from the local version of the app store to comply with the Chinese government’s restrictions. Google doesn’t support paid apps in Android Market in China and unless it censors its store (which would require substantial changes to the store’s current review process), it would be hard for it to gain mass adoption here. In that case, alternative Android app stores may thrive.
2) There are many local variants of Android, but none of them are really that big — yet.
Unlike many other Western markets, there are several custom versions of Android here that are tailored to the needs of Chinese consumers (or in less promising cases, the needs of Chinese carriers and OEMs). Because the Android market here is still so new, most Android users still have the standard version of Google’s OS.
“None of them are really big right now,” said Si Shen, the chief executive of Android mobile-social gaming network PapayaMobile.
Don’t worry about them for now. But if you are interested, the handful that come up most often in conversation are: