Chinese Apps are Bypassing Google’s Play Store, Giving Android Apps Straight to Users

Steven Millward
3:02 pm on Mar 30, 2012

A mobile platform is only as strong as its app line-up, which in turn relies on the co-operation and keenness of app developers. But looking at the situation in China, amongst Chinese startups and major web companies alike, the picture doesn’t look too good for Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android OS, with its official app store, now called Google Play, generally being subverted and/or ignored. Instead, every single one of the Chinese apps we surveyed gave the Android app ‘.apk’ file directly to consumers, with very few app developers even linking to the Play Store from their respective homepages.

Many are still using Google Play (formerly dubbed the Android Market), but seemingly only as a minor distribution channel. The Google Play store doesn’t support paid apps in China and many overseas developers choose not to publish their apps to local consumers on it. As so often occurs in China, local services have sprung up to fill in the gaps – done with a mixture of piracy and legitimate alternative app distribution. That’s the scene with the dozens of alternative Android app stores that have sprung up in the past year or so. A case in point is the newly-released Temple Run game, which is not in the Google Play store, but is easily available on other stores, such as by browsing through the Baidu app catalog which lists items from numerous third-party Chinese Android stores.

But let’s just focus on Chinese-made apps in this survey. I looked at 50 local apps, from tiny startups to well-established independent apps – like Jiepang – to those made by major web companies such as Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) and Tencent (HKG:0700). I then noted three things: which apps were given to people as ‘.apk’ files from the app homepage; which apps were available on the Play Store; and which developers actually guided consumers to the Play Store to get their apps:

As you can see, then tendency is to distribute apps very directly, as occurred with all 50 of the surveyed apps. Only in eight out of 50 cases did the app homepage additionally encourage usage of the Play Store and linked to it as well. Generally, developers were more likely to guide users to local app stores instead (not indicated in the graph).

Smaller startups were less likely to have put their apps on Google Play, even though they had done so for the iOS version of their app with Apple’s iTunes app store. The full table (bottom) shows those very early startups listed along with their Chinese names. All the other apps will be familiar to regular readers – and so are given only with their English names – as we’ve covered and/or reviewed all of them before.

One final point. Yesterday we reported that Tencent’s hit group-messaging app, Weixin, had hit 100 million users. To hit such a major milestone, you’d expect the Weixin app to have been downloaded at least twice as many times as that across all four platforms that it’s on. But, looking at the app’s listing in the Play Store, the vague Google stat says it has been downloaded “1,000,000 – 5,000,000” times. If, say, a quarter of Android users are on Weixin, then that figure ought to be higher. Even the most popular app in the country, QQ instant messenger, has had only the same number of downloads for its outgoing 2011 version on the Play Store. Clearly, Chinese Android users – despite being huge fans of the smartphone OS – are getting their apps elsewhere.

We did contact Google about this; though Asia-based staff showed an interest in the findings, no-one on the Android team in the US could be drawn to comment.

Here are all the 50 Chinese-made apps I surveyed:

  • frank

    I just bought Samsung Galaxy S3 China Mobile phone in Beijing Model 19308. I cant find Google Play in English in my phone so I can connect to Google Pay store in US I am in Beijing but only want English is ok.. How to connect to Google Play on phone. I cant find it pre installed.

  • c

    download google play.apk file

  • Andrew

    Hilarious article. They don’t distribute from Google Play because a huge percentage of users (the majority?) can’t access Google Play without rooting their phone, as frank has noted above. Just downloading the google play apk file won’t work.

    It’s odd that no-one in the industry seems to talk about this.

  • Marco

    Same issue here.
    I live and work in Beijing and was considering of buying Samsung Galaxy S4.
    Went to the shop, played with it for a while and when i tried to search for Google Play it was not there.
    I asked the shop assistant and he said that in China Google Play is not allowed.
    Result? I am not going to buy any Android phones here in China.

  • Steven Millward

    @Marco not technically true that it’s “not allowed”, as they claim, but it’s certainly rare to find it on a new phone. also rare to see a phone that hasn’t been flashed and tweaked at the post-import stage. of course, those vendors also make a few bucks from flashing on crapware and stuff, so it’s in their interest to change stuff.

    generally a bad idea for a foreigner to buy an Android phone in China unless you can find an unmolested Nexus device, which I’ve done a few times.

  • Jeroen

    I bought an HTC One S (S4 cpu) via for about RMB2350 about a year ago. It is a (smuggled?) import model from Finland, since in (most of?) Asia the inferior One S S3 cpu version is sold officially, even in HK (at a whopping HJ$3700 street price, Nov.2012).

    At taobao, many Android phone offerings are optionally pre-rooted, so you have your freedom. And in my experience there is no issue with reliability, I’m very happy with my One S and my wife’s Wildfire S also.

    The message: just buy a pre-rooted EU or US version phone on taobao, it’s cheaper and better.

  • Jan

    @Jeroen – – Wish I had seen your post a few months ago – great advice.

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