2018: a boom year for Chinese apps in India

ByteDance and co. are a massive new force in India’s app ecosystem.

Source: Unsplash.

2018 has been a phenomenal year for Chinese tech giants in India. The number of Chinese apps that made it to the top 100 apps on Google Playstore in India rose from 18 to 44, all within one year, according to Indian tech news site FactorDaily. The article cites data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower.

A range of Chinese apps has grown in popularity in India over the past year. Especially apps for social networking and sharing short video and live video stand out. ByteDance has seen immense success across the world with its short video app Tik Tok. In India, it has a second horse in the race: Helo, a social networking app that’s now also among the top 10 most popular apps in India’s Play Store. Bigo, an affiliate of Chinese tech firm YY, also has two prominent social apps in India, Bigo Live and LIKE. Other apps in the category are Tencent’s Kwai, and Cheetah Mobile’s LiveMe – in which ByteDance is an investor.

Chinese-made games like Clash of Kings and Mobile Legends have been popular for a while, but many more have entered the fray, most notably Tencent’s PUBG mobile.

Source: FactorDaily

Though the surge in popularity of Chinese apps in India happened swiftly, it wasn’t exactly overnight.

Chinese tech firms have been trying to break into the Indian market for a good six years, at least. Cut-throat domestic competition and a saturating internet market in China left them no choice but to explore greener pastures.

After all, FactorDaily points out, only India offers a potential market similar in size to China. The article reviews WeChat’s early attempt at conquering India in 2012. After the app’s record-breaking growth leap in China, it wanted to become India’s mainstream social networking app.

Tencent went all in, splurging on ads, roping in brand ambassadors, looking to acquire market share quickly. A former WeChat executive in India told Factor Daily that they were the first mobile app to launch television ads in India. But WeChat did not meet the needs of the users in India, and exited India three years after its launch.

Some of WeChat’s features, like having to accept a friend request before chatting and being able to send friend requests to other WeChat users nearby, were a hit in China, but did not sit well with India’s app users. One issue was that women complained about getting inappropriate messages from men via the add-friend nearby feature.

WhatsApp, the US messenger that’s part of Facebook, did not have these features. You could chat with anyone via WhatsApp provided they are on your contacts list, but it did not enable sending nearby strangers a request. WhatsApp became the local favourite.

Fast forward to 2018 however, India’s app landscape has changed a lot. The Chinese seem to have found a way around the challenge of localisation.

It’s not sufficient just to have a “local team” when talking about a truly localised strategy. Factor Daily describes how the new generation of Chinese apps have embedded themselves with the local culture, and are taking time to understand cultural nuance.

India, unlike China, is very diverse. Indians living in the South are generally more well-to-do than folks in the North. Different India cities speak different vernacular languages, and a deeper understanding has to be established to create the right product. More than just the caste system that separates people, consumers in India can be grouped in many ways – language, income, and geographies are just some examples.

In some cases, like Cheetah Mobile’s LiveMe, India is its main market, and it has invested in three local studios to create content with Indian talent.

China is catching up with the US in terms of global app dominance, and in India specifically, it’s banking on new-found formulas that mix video with social networking and gaming, and target smartphone users second and third-tier cities, many of whom are just coming online. The big question is if this wave is sustainable.

Many of the more established Chinese tech firms encountered trouble soon after their IPOs. HK-listed Meituan still has a doubtful pathway to profitability, while HK-listed Xiaomi saw its share price tanked by 30% over the six months following its debut, and the list goes on.

ByteDance, the creator of Tik Tok and Helo, has yet to make its public debut, and there’s no guarantee that the current hype translates into long-term sustained success and profitability. There are many unknowns. For instance, Tik Tok performed well in India last year, but there were also concerns about whether the sometimes racy content is suitable for India’s young audiences. Similar debates over platforms like Bigo Live have erupted elsewhere.

Globally, not just India, there’s been a general mistrust in Chinese products, especially with regards to their data collection habits. The challenge for Chinese app makers will be to navigate their way through these potential pitfalls. But looking at the quick proliferation of Chinese apps in India, it may be that the internet’s newest users who are coming online for the first time, enticed by affordable smartphones and data packages, may not share these concerns.

Editor: Nadine Freischlad