Chinese tech companies are often derided for repurposing the West’s best internet ideas for the local market. But lately tech companies in China, which ranks as the world’s largest smarpthone market and home to the largest number of internet users in the world, is outmaneuvering their Silicon Valley counterparts, especially with regards to mobile.
Here are 11 Chinese internet companies that are better than their U.S. counterparts drawn from Beta China, the new e-book by Hamish McKenzie that details this emerging innovation generation:
1. Weixin: A mobile social network
It took Facebook eight years to reach one billion users. In China, a mobile messaging app called Weixin (the English-language version of which is called WeChat) has accumulated more than 400 million users in just over two years.
Weixin started out as a mere rip-off of a Hong Kong-made app called TalkBox, but has since added features that mimic what’s available in Facebook (a timeline), GroupMe (group chat), Instagram (photo sharing with filters), and Skype (video calls). However, what’s most interesting about Weixin, which is owned by China’s biggest internet company, Tencent, is its business model. While Facebook scrambles to figure out what a social network looks like in the mobile era — and how to make money off it — Tencent has integrated payments and coupons into Weixin, and it will likely soon start distributing games through the app.
2. Changba: Karaoke with a mobile economy
While a killer karaoke app still eludes us in the West, tiny startup Changba has created a giant mobile social network of music lovers who sing into their phones, add photo slideshows to their tracks, and then share their creations among their peers and followers. The company took just 40 days to hit 10 million users. The app has its own charts and makes money through its virtual currency, with which users reward each other for their efforts.
3. Shakey Shakey Food God: Food recommendations app that learns your taste
Yelp looks primitive compared to China’s breakout food recommendations mobile app, the delightfully named Shakey Shakey Food God. With every shake of the phone, Shakey Shakey delivers a restaurant recommendation that draws on the user’s tastes, location, and the time of day. The app monitors users’ past activity — such as how long they linger on particular listings — to learn which restaurants are best suited to their tastes. By taking note of such factors, the app is able to get a pretty good idea of whether or not a user is at home, work, or on holiday.
4. Meilishuo: Social shopping with 30 million users
In the U.S., Pinterest is the place where people show off their taste in fashion. In China, it’s Meilishuo all the way. One big difference: Meilishuo has a robust business model. While Pinterest lets users build boards that flaunt their favorite items, Meilishuo’s users curate their own fashion catalogues, which other people then peruse and use as inspiration for purchases. Meilishuo takes a cut of every sale it drives — which, when you consider that it has more than 30 million users, turns out to be quite a lot. It also has an app that allows users to identify and share items they find in shopping malls.
5. Momo: Grindr done right for straight couples
Before there was Tinder, there was Momo, a flirting app that connects people both in close proximity and up for adventure. The app shows user profiles, how far away potential paramours are, and provides voice chat. Not quite two-years-old, the app already has more than 40 million users.
6. Sina Weibo: Twitter on steroids
What began as a Twitter clone has morphed into a kind of Facebook–Twitter hybrid that allows people to share messages and photos at scale and with the immediacy to escape China’s heavy-handed censors (at least for a while). Unlike Facebook, it is a powerful many-to-many broadcast platform. Unlike Twitter, it has threaded comments, so every “tweet” can become a fully fledged conversation among hundreds, or thousands, of people. Users can also pay for premium accounts, with which they customize their homepages, post audio tweets, and automatically filter tweets that come into their stream by importance. Sina Weibo claims more than 400 million users.
7. Xiaomi: Homegrown iPhone competitor built on Android
Created by serial entrepreneur and internet superstar Lei Jun, who some have called “the Steve Jobs of China,” Xiaomi makes a smartphone that is comparable to the best in the world but comes in at $400 cheaper per device than the iPhone in China. Now privately valued at $9 billion, according to Quartz, the 3-year-old company sells its Android-based phones mostly online and spends almost all of its marketing dollars on social media. It also sells an Apple TV-like set-top box, street shoes, and it is reportedly set to unveil a 47-inch smart TV in August.
8. YY: Hangouts for millions of people at a time
Google Hangouts have brought massively interactive video to the US, but China’s YY.com has been doing that since 2008, just without the benefits of giant and stable data centers to provide all the computing horsepower needed to manage the immense traffic. YY is a huge communications platform that hosts various video and audio channels in which people can gather to be entertained, discuss specific topics, or learn lessons in a virtual classroom. The platform has its own virtual currency, which people use to reward karaoke singers, pay English teachers, or exchange for other virtual goods. One small-town karaoke singer makes more than $45,000 a month through her channel. YY, which went public in November last year, has more than 300 million users, more than 11 million channels, and has hosted up to 8 million concurrent users.
9. Jingdong: Like Amazon, but with three-hour delivery
While Amazon is still working on same-day delivery, China’s Jindgong — formerly known as 360buy — recently introduced three-hour delivery in six major cities. Jingdong customers can also track their packages’ delivery progress via their mobile devices and contact delivery people in real time.
10. Dolphin: Gesture-based mobile browser
Search for web pages by gestures. In-browser sidebars for navigation. Mobile browser extensions, such as save-to-PDF or push-to-Dropbox. It was all done first by Dolphin, a Beijing-based startup that has since secured funding from Sequioa Capital and set up shop in the U.S.
11. UCWeb: Mobile browser that beat Amazon’s Silk by 7 years
UCWeb started building mobile browsers back in the feature phone era, when screens were the size of a Post-It note. Because its UCBrowser was built for a time when mobile internet connections were extremely sluggish, it relied on a cloud-powered architecture that helped quicken page-load times, carrying much of the data load on its own servers. Seven years after UCWeb invented the system, Amazon followed suit with its Silk browser for the Kindle Fire, which uses a similar cloud-powered approach. Now on smartphones, the UCBrowser is more than just a portal to the internet — it also serves as a kind of internet start page, with links to websites, an RSS reader for quick access to news, and integration with Evernote. UCBrowser now has more than 400 million users, about 20% of which are in India.
Hamish McKenzie’s Beta China: The Dawn of an Innovation Generation, is available for $1.99 via Amazon and Apple.