As the Chinese internet and mobile markets grow, a lot of people are looking to localize their products in China. In general, this might mean setting up a team in Beijing to begin adapting the app or service to Chinese users’ needs, translating it into Chinese, etc. If you need your service in front of as many people as possible as fast as possible, localizing to Beijing makes sense. But developers should remember that there are other communities in China that may have drastically different requirements.
There are, for example, more than 5 million ethnic Tibetans in China (about equal to the total population of Singapore), and more than 8 million ethnic Uyghurs (about equal to the total population of Hong Kong). That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of Han Chinese, of course, and smartphone and PC penetrations are comparatively low among Tibetan and Uyghur populations, but there is also far, far less competition. Your Chinese-language app has a huge potential market, but it also probably has dozens of competitors. If it gets big enough, it’s going to spawn copycats. A Tibetan or Uyghur app has a far smaller potential market, but the chances are that it will only have a few competitors — possibly none at all.
Moreover, as regions like Xinjiang and Tibet develop economically, smartphone and web penetration should grow rapidly. Earlier this year, I wrote about how broadband access and use is increasing in Xinjiang (where most ethnic Uyghurs live). And Tibet already enjoys faster internet speeds than many of China’s developed eastern provinces.
Now, obviously, these communities are always going to be relatively small, so an app or service in Tibetan or Uyghur is going to have limited scalability. That means if the only reason you’re making apps is to become a billionaire you can stop reading now (you probably stopped a few paragraphs ago anyway). But for those of you that are in tech to solve problems and build useful applications, these are significant and under-served communities where there are are real problems that have yet to be solved. The cultural and linguistic barriers to entry are formidable, sure, but they’re not insurmountable, especially if you’re willing to hire locals as part of your team (and why wouldn’t you be?).
And, of course, your app doesn’t have to be targeted just at Uyghurs or Tibetans. For example, I would love to see social apps that aim to help break down the barriers between ethnic minorities and Han Chinese, which are significant. And a Lhasa or Urumqi-based LBS service would be just as useful to local Han Chinese as it would be to Tibetans or Uyghurs so long as you included simplified Chinese text, too. There are lots of cool things that could be done with smartphone, feature phone, and web apps to serve these unique communities and solve problems that not many other devs are even aware of, let alone paying attention to.
(This probably goes without saying, but if you are working on an app like this or have worked on one in the past, please get in touch with me, as I’d love to learn more about it).