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Dear Apple, Amazon, Google: Here’s Why Chinese Consumers Hate Your Ecosystems

Web ecosystems in China

Chinese consumers love your gadgets – that’s great news. But the bad news for Apple, Amazon, Google, and many more companies is that Chinese netizens hate your ecosystems. They really don’t want to be trapped in your walled garden. In an age of platforms and extended web services, that’s a huge monetization problem for tech companies entering the world’s biggest market.

Android, without the Google bits

This aversion to tech ecosystems in China is seen most starkly with Google’s mobile OS, Android. An estimated 189 million smartphones were sold in China in 2012, and as many as 86 percent of those were Android devices. But that huge user-base hasn’t translated into popularity for Google’s other apps and services.

Why not? Google has long had a rough ride in China, starting with the Great Firewall blocking YouTube back in 2007 – never to become accessible again. Many more Google services were later turned off by Net Nanny, as some scandal or spread of information made it more convenient for authorities to shut down these channels. Later the GFW blocked Picasa, Blogger, the AppSpot engine. More recently, some apps that are much more central to Android, like G+ and Google Drive, got blocked as well. That certainly hasn’t helped Google’s ecosystem, but I don’t believe it’s the leading cause of Chinese consumers being keen to remove the Google bits from Android.

iPhone and Android in China

Love the phones, hate the ecosystem.

Far more crucial to this ecosystem aversion is something indicative of a healthier side of the Chinese web – lots of quality competition. Regardless of the Great Firewall or anything else, Chinese consumers love to pick and choose and mix and match – and get the best deal. We’re talking about consumers who’ll haggle for an hour to save a dollar. And so if there are better apps and services out there, then screw your ecosystem. For cloud storage, Chinese smartphone users could install apps from Baidu, or Shanda, or numerous startups. Over 30 million users have opted for Baidu NetDrive already.

Same for email. Same for web video.

It even applies to sourcing Android apps, with Chinese Android fans choosing to scour a wide range of third-party app stores for games and apps rather than using Google Play.

All that freedom of choice reinforces the general dislike among Chinese netizens of being locked in a walled garden. Using Android generally demands having a Google account and having a Gmail address – but not every user wants to be coralled into this.

Apples are not the only fruit

Apple might have been pushed down to an ignominious sixth place in terms of smartphone sales in China recently – well below Android handset makers like Samsung and Lenovo – but the iPhone and iPad are still examples of an astonishing gadget success in the country. Yet the whole Apple ecosystem hasn’t been so warmly embraced.

jailbreaking in China - iTools

iTools is an alternative to iTunes (and helps you jailbreak) if you prefer to opt out of Apple’s ecosystem.

This is despite Apple having built up the most rigid ecosystem (probably an oxymoron, as ecosystems are fluid and adaptive in nature) that mandates having an Apple ID, syncing via iTunes, and not customizing your phone’s UI in any meaningful way. Almost inevitably, a lot of Chinese iOS owners have flipped the bird at all these restrictions and – as is the case on Android – have been greeted with plenty of locally-made resources that can be used as alternatives.

For example, those who dislike iTunes as a domineering music player and App Store combo can instead try out iTools, which is made by a Shenzhen-based startup.

Admitedly, piracy is also an issue, and for some people it’s a motivation in opting out of Apple’s restrictive environment. As we explored recently, there are lots of piracy and jailbreaking resources in China for iPhone and iPad owners.

But ultimately, as with Android, the Apple ecosystem aversion is mostly down to Chinese consumers being keen on using things from local competitors, even if – in avoiding iTunes, iCloud, etc – it makes their experience more fragmented and involves signing up for a bunch of different apps.

Who cares about the Kindle?

All of this bodes very badly for Amazon. Just because Amazon is a huge name and runs China’s fifth-largest e-commerce site, it doesn’t mean that Chinese netizens want to jump aboard its broader hardware and web platform. In fact, all available evidence suggests a strategic nightmare ahead.

Amazon has launched its Kindle e-bookstore and apps in China but it has not yet launched other cloud services or any hardware here. Since Amazon makes some of the most locked-down hardware, and its Kindle Fire tablet is a parallel-universe version of Android, it sounds like a potential disaster as a raw example of a product that’s totally unsuited to the Chinese market. Yes, China loves Android, but only in its own image. The Amazon AppStore sounds like a no-go here as well.

The hardware, too, will be coming into a market dominated by well-established local rivals who already have e-bookstores linked to their e-readers, such as with Shanda’s Bambook or Dangdang’s Doucon.

Be water, my friend

Tech ecosystems in China

Be formless, shapeless, like water. (And be flexible towards your ecosystem users).

Yes, it’s a tough market. But openness seems to be massively important – both to Chinese consumers, and to a company’s chance of success in this market. While the Android situation might sound bad, it’s still great for Google. The search giant can still say to developers: “Hey, come develop for Android, because Chinese smartphone buyers love it. Yes, there’s piracy and they refuse to use Google Play, but you can still monetize from ads – yes, our own ad platform – and you still get access to the world’s biggest smartphone market.” I believe it’s only a flexible and adaptive ecosystem – like Android – that can perform such a feat. Plus, Android is responsive on hardware price-points, and adaptable and customizable at a software level.

It’s rougher for Apple in China, where the company’s you’re either with us or against us approach to their users often forces many to jailbreak, where they’re then more likely to become app pirates. From that point onward, Apple has no more means of monetizing those users on its platform.

It’s also a cautionary tale for Microsoft in China as it starts afresh with Windows Phone. As established as Microsoft is in China, it’s still in no position to enforce Hotmail/Outlook as a starting point for WP users, and its Marketplace for apps risks being as restrictive as Apple’s.

Of course, local web companies are not immune to all this. China’s biggest e-commerce company, Alibaba, has been met with a frosty reception with its attempt at a mobile OS of its own – and that’s despite having hundreds of millions of local users on its online stores. The nation’s top search engine, Baidu, is also finding it tough to persuade its search users to try out its apps ecosystem – like Baidu Maps, which lags behind local mapping experts Autonavi in terms of users – in the face of strong competition in every single sector. That leaves China’s numerous web giants scrapping over users for every single app and service – it’s unrelentingly rough, but it’s the only way.

So my advice on pushing your tech ecosystem in China is, essentially, to listen to Bruce Lee: Be water, my friend.

(Lead image credit: Our photoshop contains this sketch from DeviantArt)


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