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Apps with Chinese characteristics hit obstacles in India

Chinese apps such as WeChat are struggling for popular acceptance in India

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 9:01am

Chinese mobile applications are expanding to emerging markets such as India in an effort to tap new growth, but cultural differences and a competitive market environment have proven to be major barriers, impeding their wide spread adoption, according to industry experts.

WeChat, a hugely popular message app in China developed by Tencent, ranks a distant 289th on the free app ranking at Google Play Store for India, the centralised market place for android apps. WeChat officially entered India in 2012.

“The main reason why WeChat is not doing as well in India as we do is that we are very local,” said Kavin Bharti Mittal, founder of home-grown messaging app hike messenger, which currently ranks 31st among free apps at Google Play.

The app is equipped with features such as emojis(in-text image) showing greetings in numerous local languages and a function that provides details of the latest cricket matches, the most popular sport in India.

“It is not surprising [that WeChat is not doing well in India] because the China market is huge but very inward and isolated, so they ended up building an app for China not for the world,” said Mittal.

This is not the same with India where outside players such as WhatsApp and Facebook dominate the market. According to a survey conducted by London-based research firm GlobalWebIndex in January, 74 per cent of Indians have used WhatsApp in the recent month and 53 per cent have used Facebook Messenger. hike messenger and WeChat are 21 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively.

“[In India] you are competing with all the global companies and having a deep local knowledge is very important,” Mittal added.

One of the local features is privacy protection within the app. Mittal said many families in India share one smartphone and to protect users’ privacy, which underscores the need for password protection for particular dialogues within the app.

hike messenger supports communication between smartphones and feature phones by converting hike messages into text messages and vice versa, a useful function in India where smartphone ownership is not as widespread as China.

While Chinese smartphone sales growth has flattened, the Indian market is still in the early stages of the adoption cycle.

“Smartphone penetration is still at less than 30 per cent in the country which makes it one of the most attractive markets in the world,” according to a report from research firm IDC.

Chinese smartphone suppliers such as Lenovo, Huwei and Xiaomi have already entered the country. Lenovo has an 8 per cent market share, ranking 4th in the country for the first quarter this year, according to IDC.

But many Chinese software companies are not enjoying the growth of smartphone vendors. The top Chinese apps in India are mostly utility apps such as web browser and antivirus tools.

“[Successful Chinese apps in India are] mostly utility apps and those higher value-added apps are virtually nothing. They are not able to adjust to the market,” said Shiv Putcha, associate director for Asia-Pacific telecom practise at IDC’s Asia-Pacific office.

Putcha thinks the Chinese apps are not just limited by cultural understanding but also by the lack of investment to build an “ecosystem”where their apps can flourish.

“WeChat is successful because of the added services such as car hailing and online payment but these services are not available in India,” he said.

“If your focus is only on messaging then it is not so exciting [to switch], a lot of people are already using WhatsApp,” Putcha added.

“Any new messaging apps would need to work hard to compete with WhatsApp in this market, but it’s not necessarily the case that Indian internet users prefer the stripped-back simple nature of WhatsApp,” GlobalWebIndex Trends Manager Felim McGrathan, said.

“As consumer understanding grows, there’s certainly a good chance for WeChat, Hike or other apps with increased functionality to grow in India,” McGrathan said.