Alibaba’s UC mobile browser is No. 1 in India, but Google is closing in as phones get fancier

The browser has lost its top spot in Indonesia and its share is declining in India, as the rise of powerful budget smartphones lessens the need for the small footprint that made it popular

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 11:56am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 11:56am

Chinese-developed mobile web browser UC Browser is struggling to maintain the dominant position it had built up in the emerging markets of India and Indonesia as the availability of more powerful smartphones lessens the appeal of its small footprint.

Little known in western markets, UC Browser, owned by internet giant Alibaba Group Holding, built its leading position by keeping its size small for markets dominated by low-cost and low-power mobile phones that did not have the capacity to run large size apps like Google Chrome.

That helped it rise to third in the global browser market with a share of 8.7 per cent, behind Chrome’s 55 per cent and Safari’s 14.9 per cent, according to research agency StatCounter.

However with low-cost phones, especially ones made by Chinese firms including Xiaomi, now offering much more in the way of power and storage space, users in UC’s top markets have the option to use Chrome or other browsers that offer more functionality.

“When mobile phones are getting upgrades and consumers are becoming more sophisticated, they may consider options like Chrome which is simply designed but works smoothly on any average-priced handset,” said Zhao Ziming, a senior analyst at Beijing-based consultancy Cyzone.

According to StatCounter, UC remained the No 1 mobile and tablet browser in India as of December, with a market share of 43.2 per cent, followed by Chrome with 35.5 per cent. But its share dropped from a year before when it had 56.9 per cent compared to Chrome’s 21.5 per cent.

UC Browser has around 100 million users in India, according to Alibaba, but the availability of more powerful yet still cheap phones from Chinese smartphone makers, who now account for around half the market, is changing the mobile phone landscape in India.

For example, Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 4, which retails for US$157 in India, was the best selling smartphone in the country’s top 50 cities during the third quarter of 2017, according to research firm IDC. The phone’s high-powered Qualcom chip set and 4 GB RAM specification make it more than adequate for running any browser.

In Indonesia meanwhile, Chrome overtook UC Browser last year, with its share reaching 42 per cent from 26 per cent at the end of 2016, while UC Browser’s share fell to 33 per cent in 2017 from 43 per cent in 2016. UC Browser still has around 30 million active users in the country.

As with India, Chinese smartphone makers including Oppo and Vivo are selling powerful phones for between US$200 and US$400 in Indonesia, offering users more choice in the apps they use.

Alibaba expressed optimism over the future of UC, saying that the app is transforming from a browser to a content distribution platform. It said early last year that it would invest 2 billion rupees (US$31 million) to develop content and has also set up a fund to help developers.

“As millions of users switch to a smartphone from a feature phone and start accessing the internet for the first time using a mobile, it becomes important for them to have access to a platform that is not only user friendly but also guides them to meaningful content,” said Damon Xi, general manager for UC Web in India and Indonesia.

Still, the march of the powerful smartphone is likely to continue to dent UC’s progress, Cyzone’s Zhao said.

“With mobile networks and smartphone models continually being upgraded, the market share of UC in emerging markets could be further eroded by Chrome, as Google offers a full-service platform that allows information to be synchronised over different devices,” he said.