With over 400 million users around the globe, UCWeb is ready to make the jump from a mobile browser to a platform that supports its own app ecosystem.  During last week’s GMIC event, we met up with UCWeb CEO Yu Yongfu to discuss the company’s rise as a “super app” and its plans for continued international growth.

UCWeb defines a super app as “an app that has a large user base, high usage rate, and the ability to support extended services by acting as a platform for third party apps and services.” For instance, Asian messaging services like WeChat, Line and Kakao have achieved super status. Over in the west, services like Facebook, Twitter and Evernote have earned the title.

By its own account, UCWeb took its place among other super apps in July when it launched its open platform for developers. Now it’s courting partners to develop HTML5 Web apps, plugins and application bookmarks for its mobile browser.

A year ago, UCWeb has more than 10 percent market share in six countries. Now it has achieved the feat in 10 nations. UCWeb’s home county of China remains its best market, with more than 50 percent share, and the company continues to see strong growth in India, where it passed 30 percent share this summer.

UCWeb also notched a victory earlier this year when Alibaba founder Jack Ma joined its board of directors.

“Jack Ma has, of all people, one of the best high level strategic views of the industry,” Yu said, adding that Ma has provided some “valuable ideas” since joining.

Super apps

UCWeb sees the super app/light app model as an emerging trend in Asia. Several of China’s largest Internet companies, including Baidu, Tencent and Sina, are all pursuing the strategy. Yu touts UCWeb as the number two super app in China in terms of downloads.

“Over the past few years, there has been a controversial discussion whether the market is going toward native apps or web apps. The argument is coming to a conclusion,” Yu said.

He pointed to the prevalence of long-tail apps that gain just a tiny fraction of the downloads on an app store. By his reckoning, 0.1% of apps account for 70% of overall downloads, and that ratio will continue to expand.

From the users’ perspective, Yu argued that they simply want a better experience and content, irrespective of whether it comes through a native or a Web app.

“The native/web app [distinction] is an issue for developers, not users,” he said.

Yu also believes that rarely-opened native apps can be less suitable for users because of bandwidth requirements, costs and frequent updates.

“The problem they face is they download [an app] and by the time they get around to using it, it’s already time to update,” he said.

Yu’s research suggests that 70 percent of the data that Chinese users consume on iOS is spent on updating apps.

“The advantage of a super app and an open super app platform is that it’s very supportive of the needs of users to be able to use apps as frequently and infrequently they want without having to update,” he noted.

On the developer side, app makers can reduce their R&D costs by creating light apps. Yu also asserted that native apps tend to be more closed – something that goes against the spirit of the Internet.

US strategy

UCWeb has seen ready adoption in emerging markets around the world, but it has yet to fully make a splash in the US. Yu said the company is in the “initial stages” of tailoring its browser for US consumers, adding that it is making “fast progress.”

The firm’s US office isn’t just tasked with growing its share of the local market. UCWeb has also established an R&D center to to tap Silicon Valley talent on a global scale. UCWeb also makes strategic investments in US companies that want to reach international markets.

Mobile is global

Since mobile startups are going international at an earlier stage than traditional PC and Internet firms, UCWeb is on the lookout for companies it can help with its wide international reach across key markets like China and India.

UCWeb has made investments in more than 20 companies over the past few years, and it’s keen to make more, especially in the US.

Chinese Internet giants have in the past struggled to get overseas, so I was curious what UCWeb’s secret was. Yu pointed to the global nature of the mobile industry as a key factor. In a sense, UCWeb is China’s first mobile giant, since most of the big players rose up as PC-focused companies before switching to mobile-first strategies.

In Yu’s view, the PC era was dominated by US companies, leaving international firms to study them and then follow suit in their own markets.

“We noticed a pattern that Japanese companies, European companies, Australian companies, all didn’t do as well as US companies in the global market,” Yu said. “If you build your company based on copying someone else’s model, then you’re not going to become a leader.”

However, the rise of the mobile Internet didn’t happen first in the US, as Japan, China and Korea had advanced mobile markets in the early 2000s. Yu suggested that a reason for the difference is that cell phones became a lifestyle in Asia, where commuters tended to take public transportation. US workers, on the other hand, often drove in to work, so they couldn’t use their phones on their commute.

“When I came [to the US] for business trips in 2007-2008, I was really struck by how big and ugly and simple everybody’s handsets were. It made me see that people still thought of the mobile phone as a tool for communication,” Yu said. “But in Asia at that time (Japan, Korea or China), the cellphones were thin, stylish, all kinds of different colors. In the US, they were shaped like bricks.”

The popularity of texting in Asia also helped. Yu estimated that texting in the region became popular as early as the year 2000, giving it as much as an eight-year head start on the US.

“If you’re looking at companies that have done well globally, Line has gone global from Japan. During the PC era we wouldn’t have seen a Japanese or Chinese company go global like this.”

Yu said he meets with a lot of American teams that come through China looking to learn from the country’s mobile Internet industry.

Yes, we can

UCWeb’s focus on mobile was no accident. Yu said the firm was founded with the vision of helping connect many more users to the Internet.

“If you want to look at everybody around the globe having an access point to the internet, that access point is the mobile Internet, not the PC Internet.”

UCWeb, which is a play on “You Can Web” according to Yu, has already fulfilled its vision for hundreds of millions of users. Cracking the US market won’t be easy, but the company has already earned its place as one of the few Chinese mobile firms to go international.

Image credit: Flickr / Julien GONG Min