China’s biggest mobile browser by users is embarking on an international offensive in a sign of Chinese tech companies’ growing ambitions beyond the borders of the world’s most populous nation.
More than half of China’s smartphone owners use UCWeb’s mobile browser to navigate the internet on their phones. The company said on Tuesday it would invest Rmb3bn over the next three years to try to gain a similarly dominant position in high-growth markets such as India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Through 2016, the company aims to acquire 1bn users, half of them abroad, up from 400m users today, of which just 100m are outside China.
This ambitious plan contrasts with the more cautious moves of larger and more well-known Chinese internet companies, which have so far largely been content with dominance in their fast-growing, protected home market, rather than seeking adventures abroad.
“Many companies are fearful, but we have concluded that the time has come that non-American internet companies will have a chance to play a dominant role,” Yu Yongfu, UCWeb chairman, told the Financial Times.
Mr Yu argued that while the rest of the world had consistently followed US technology companies’ lead in the PC era, they have been much faster to adapt to new developments in mobile internet technology.
China has been one of the few countries in the world where US internet companies have failed to penetrate, partly because of local government protection and partly because domestic players had quickly built up similar services that are better suited to local tastes.
Ebay was defeated in the Chinese online retail market by Taobao, a similar service offered by Alibaba, the company that also runs the world’s biggest online marketplace for trade between companies. Google’s share of the Chinese online search market has dwindled since an open stand-off with the Chinese government over censorship three years ago, to the benefit of local search rival Baidu. Its Android operating system however remains the most popular in China.
No foreign company has come even close in gaming and social media to the dominant position of Tencent, the company that runs the world’s largest instant messaging tool by users.
But so far, none of these Chinese market leaders have made decisive moves into foreign countries. “Our own market is still vast and growing very fast, so it would be unwise for us to rush into something else,” said an executive at Tencent. “It is no coincidence that US internet companies have struggled in China – it might be just the same for Chinese internet firms abroad.”
UCWeb has considered its expansion carefully. Mr Yu named Opera and Google’s Chrome Mobile as main global rivals. He believes his company can enjoy a competitive advantage because Chrome was designed for the higher memory specifications typically seen in devices in the US market, and runs less well on devices with less memory chip capacity, as often found in smartphones made for markets such as India.
But he is well aware that his company will have to adapt too. In India, the market for which UCWeb has set its most ambitious target of reaching a 25 per cent market share in three years, the company sells a browser with stronger navigation and video playback capabilities because Indian users are fond of mobile video and downloads. In the US, the browser’s colour design is being adapted to suit local tastes.
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