In China, not all mobile apps are made equal

New studies show that users in different Chinese cities prefer different mobile apps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 5:56pm

Chinese cities are markedly different from one another, and a life in southern Guangzhou is a far cry from a day-to-day existence in northern Harbin, with both cities featuring massive variations in cuisine, regional dialect and environment.

New data promulgated by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group of Beijing has revealed that differences in Chinese cities extend even further beyond these obvious discrepancies, and can be seen in the apps installed on the mobile devices of smartphone users, which vary dramatically depending on region.

The data, released in October after Horizon surveyed nearly 2,000 smartphone owners aged 18 to 32, reveal a hierarchy of mobile apps that matches the tier system sometimes used to classify Chinese cities, Tech in Asia reported.

Residents living in first and second tier metropolises like Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai tended to use mobile apps that were designed to help them find taxis, locate good restaurants or decide on sightseeing locations.

Apps that let users read restaurant and shop reviews, such as mainland favourite Dianping, were widely used, and mobile taxi apps have constantly been in high demand in crowded Chinese cities like Beijing, where hailing a taxi is notoriously troublesome.

In contrast, smartphone users living in third and fourth tier cities like Dandong and Shantou were less inclined to use mobile apps designed for tourism and transportation, particularly since their cities were smaller and less crowded.

These users preferred to play games or watch videos on their phones, and a 24-year-old state worker named Su Jing said that people living in smaller cities usually relied upon word of mouth when it came to finding good local restaurants or sightseeing activities.

“If I [lived] in Shanghai, I would use a lot of apps,” Su, who now lives in the prefecture-level city of Jiujiang, told China Daily. “But in a small city like Jiujiang, my lifestyle is different. Without some apps, I can still lead a comfortable life.”

Mobile chat and social network apps like WeChat and Sina Weibo were popular in bigger cities, with 53.8 per cent of those surveyed saying that they used the programs frequently to communicate with friends. In bottom tier cities, only 41 per cent said that they were big social network users.

According to 2012 research done by media analysis agency We Are Social, residents of smaller Chinese cities have also historically preferred slightly different social network apps.

The most obvious difference is seen when observing China’s microblog services. Sina Weibo is widely touted as number one, with 287 million active users in cities like Beijing and Shanghai who often make headlines with their lively discussion of pertinent news issues.

Sina’s competitor, Tencent Weibo, actually claims a higher netizen penetration and more registered users. But in contrast to the metropolis-dwelling urbanities that are influenced by Sina Weibo’s advertising, which usually caters to top tier cities, many Tencent Weibo fans live in rural regions or smaller cities, and have not made as noticeable an impact when it comes to discussing controversial issues online.

Nevertheless, Horizon’s research shows that despite region-specific preferences, mobile phone apps have undeniably cemented their place in Chinese society, and are now beginning to shape the landscape of cultural differences that define cities.

“[Apps] are the true evolution of phone [usage] and communication,” said Kevin Lau, a Hong Kong-based media freelancer. “They have become ubiquitous.”