Exploring the Android Ecosystem in China — Interview with Greenify’s OasisFeng
Android has dominated the mobile landscape for several years now, and it doesn’t look like that dominance will disappear anytime soon. At Google I/O, Sundar Pichai revealed that there are 1 billion Android users. With the explosive developmental growth in places such as the African continent, India, and China, it’s hard to predict Android’s numbers going anywhere but up.
China is an especially interesting market for Android given the difficulties Google has had in the past dealing with the Chinese government. Even today, the Play Store remains blocked by the Great Firewall in mainland China. What does this mean for Google and Android? Of the nearly 900 million smartphone users in China, approximately 77.4% of those users are operating an Android device. That means there are about 700 million active Android users in China – more than double the population of the United States – and none of them have official access to the Google Play Store!
Android in China
The lack of the Google Play Store in China has led to an interesting situation. In the void left behind by Google’s exit from China, third-party app stores rushed in to compete for dominance. To say that China’s app store marketplace is fragmented would be an understatement. Handset manufacturers, carriers, and independent companies have all ventured into this business to create their own app store, resulting in a confusing mess that turns away many Western developers. Yet, this is one market that developers absolutely cannot ignore, especially now that talented Chinese developers can now market their own apps outside of China, driving up the level of competition.
Consider the current state of the Android ecosystem in China. As mobile app markets continue to consolidate into larger consortiums, a few markets will eventually rise to the top. Indeed, according to a report by NewZoo, the top 10 marketplaces each reach tens of millions of Chinese consumers. Myapp, an app store owned by Tencent, is installed on 25% of Android devices in China, meaning that approximately 175 million people are using this app store. Thus, even the highly fragmented Chinese Android marketplace provides easy access to huge audiences.
Not only are you missing out on a lot of potential revenue by not targeting the Chinese market, you may already be suffering a loss of revenue thanks to copy-cats. The solution is not to sit back and accept that this is how China works, it’s to be pro-active and preempt it before it happens. Piracy of Western apps is only an issue because of how neglected the market has been for so long. Understanding the Chinese market, from the perspective of the average consumer and developer, is therefore a necessary first step when attempting to penetrate the market. To that end, I spoke to XDA Senior Member OasisFeng, developer of the popular battery saving app Greenify, to learn more about Android users in China.
An Interview with OasisFeng
XDA: How would you describe the developer scene in China? Is it thriving? Are there a lot of active communities like XDA/reddit?
OasisFeng: “In China, there’re a huge number of developers, probably far beyond your imagination, since software developer is one of the hottest career choice among college graduates. But due to many factors, the overwhelming majority of them are employed by large companies and working over-time, thus not forming a healthy developer community. Due to the fragmented app markets in China, almost all app-markets promote apps purely by ads, causing apps from independent developers are far less visible to users. This in turn suppresses the growth of developer communities. The only and highly active communities are formed by super users and ROM modders, such as bbs.gfans.com and bbs.hiapk.com. App developers are hardly seen there.”
XDA: Is open-source development popular in the Chinese scene? Why/Why not?
OasisFeng: “Not quite but improving fast. In the past decade, a series of bad examples of huge success by “copy-and-evolve” (QQ and WeChat for instance) drove the whole IT industry to believe that sharing your software may lead to instant threat from huge companies (well-known for copy-cat) to copy your product easier and faster. Things got changed a lot in the recent years, since more and more companies use open-source projects (contribution or new) to advertise their software technologies and attract talented developers. My ex-employer, for example, became the top contributor to Linux kernel among all Chinese companies. My team also open-sourced “Dexposed”, a derived project based on Xposed, and it gains near 2k stars and 500+ forks in a few months.”
XDA: Compared to the West, would you say developers in China are more competitive, collaborative, or generally similar?
OasisFeng: “In my observation, Chinese developers are obviously more collaborative and thus more competitive only as large team, because they’re used to obedience and work as group, which deeply roots in the culture of east. Do you know, most of the popular Android apps in China are made by large company with hundreds of developers. Take Taobao for example, its Android app is developed by more than 200 developers, across 10+ business units in the company. On the opposite, Chinese developers are unlikely to succeed as independent developers or in small teams. I’m an exception actually.”
XDA: How do developers in China usually make money off of their apps?
OasisFeng: “From salary, or in much better case, acquisition by large company. Most independent developers (though rare) cannot go far with their apps, since “pay-for-apps” is not popular among Chinese users. Forget about Ads too, they’re too cheap in China too. For successful ones, the developer behind is most probably contacted by large companies with offer to acquisition or threaten to be copied. Not all of them could resist the threatening offer. Still I’m an exception again.”
XDA: In general, how would you describe the attitude of Chinese consumers towards developers (and applications)? If you can, compare it with your experiences developing for users on XDA.
OasisFeng: “Most Chinese users never visit online communities, they just download the apps recommended by friends and app-markets. Due to the fragmentation of app-markets mentioned above, the apps for daily life are basically seized by large companies and highly-funded startups. Since the apps from large companies always copy competitor’s features, most users even can’t tell the differences from popular apps in the same category, so they just pick one blindly. They don’t care about the developers behind, because most are large companies which seldom respond to users. As a result, only a small number of geek users are willing to communicate with developers. Since China has the largest population in the world, that “small number” is already big enough for developers. “
XDA: Is app piracy a big problem in China?
OasisFeng: “App piracy is not a big problem in China, since you can hardly find a paid app here. Talking about foreign (or world-wide-oriented) apps, it’s also no longer a problem in China in the recent years. Though pirated apps are floating around the online forums, they declined fast as users are used to app markets. You can always find a free alternative (probably copied by large company) to most common apps, why bothering seeking for the pirated one?”
XDA: What are people’s attitudes towards privacy in China? Are people more or less concerned about their private data?
OasisFeng: “Most people believed privacy is important at first, but are losing hope these days. As most apps here are developed by large companies, you could never wish for privacy from their hands. Even the companies whose products are aiming for privacy protection are stealing privacy, revealed by many security teams again and again. Most friends of mine feel helpless on privacy since government also takes no responsibility in this area.”
Given the recent move by Google to allow Chinese developers to publish their apps on the Play Store outside of China, I decided to also ask OasisFeng about his thoughts on the reputation of Chinese developers and Westerners. After all, we’ve seen some shady attacks on Android users originating from some Chinese companies. This and other attacks have resulted in a reputational hit strong enough to cause fake viruses to scapegoat random “Chinese hackers” in order to scare you into a scam.
XDA: Why do you believe some outsiders have a low opinion of Chinese developers?
OasisFeng: “Chinese developers are among the most diligent workers in the world, most of them work more than 60 hours a week. Also they are creative, but unfortunately their talents are usually directed to the dark side of commercial interests due to lack of supervision and distorted profit model of mobile apps in China. These are both the invisible side of Chinese developers.”
XDA: Do you agree with any of the criticism? If so, which and why?
OasisFeng: “Some users world-wide give criticism of the nasty things behind Chinese apps. These are obviously driven by the brutal commerce environment in China, and should not be judged the same for all of them. If a developer is economically supported by users, then developer will surely give users the best. But in the real world, developers are employed by large companies which are funded by capital. Just like Google and Facebook, Chinese large companies attempt to take hands on more and more user data, but in an immature way … They will learn how to do those things in a more elegant and concealed way when exploring beyond the China market.”
XDA: What can Chinese developers do to combat these ideas about them?
OasisFeng: “The sticking point of the whole issue is the profit model of mobile apps. Western developers are lucky because of paid apps are already accepted by most users. But in China, users are spoiled by free apps made by large companies.
We all like free apps, but developers need to earn their life. In my opinion, “pay for apps” is definitely not the answer (not only in China but also for the world). We need to build a whole new model exclusive for digital goods, to give users the rights to use apps freely (for free and free from ads) while still supporting the creators in profit. [I’ve been looking for] such a new model for years and will hopefully have a chance to make it real in the near future, with the whole developer community. Looking forward to that day, all developers could live a life in proud and honor by themselves, without the employment in a large company.”
I also asked OasisFeng about his personal experiences as an Android developer. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his future development plans, you can see the rest of the interview by following this link.
Do you use any apps made from Chinese developers? Are you a developer who currently sells their app to Chinese markets? Tell us about your experiences below!