Mobile First in China

I am currently in China on a working holiday. Today is Chinese New Year, a time to be retrospective and a second chance for me to start acting on some resolutions that slipped.

My observation is China is a contrast in technology trends, mobile adoption is moving faster than anywhere else I have been and in the wake a legacy of Windows XP on the desktop is refusing to go away.

Everywhere you look you see Iphone 6s and Galaxy Note 3s, prior to coming to China I knew that “brand new” mobile phones were fashionable, and I discounted as a younger generation fascinated with status and Western Culture. Being here has given me a different perspective. Not having access to sites like Google, YouTube or Facebook has not slowed down adoption of technology, from what I can see China is ahead of the curve when it comes to mobility, both in terms of adoption and how the mobile device is being used.

The stats are amazing Chinese mobile phone users to 557 million or 85.8 % of total Internet users, there is 94.5% mobile penetration and from what I can see, like their cars, they are all brand new and better than mine!

The recent article in Smashing Magazine China’s Bleeding Edge: Web Design Trends 2015 is a really good read and highlights some of what I am seeing here WeChat, light apps and QR codes everywhere. WeChat is by far the most popular Mobile application with over 400 million users, interestingly around 20% of those users are not based in China. WeChat is more of a one stop mobile platform, it is functionally rich, covering all social media, search, news, blogging, e-commerce, banking, IM, Group Chat needs and more. What makes WeChat interesting to me is that it is self contained with its own web browser, given the popularity of mobility and WeChat in particular it has meant that the way websites are built has changed. To cater for the mobile first, there has been a paradigm shift to creating what is termed “light apps”, very similar to consumer facing, fit for purpose, responsive, single page HTML5 apps. The other thing worth noting you dont see URL’s, instead of advertising thier URL’s, companies us QR Codes, they are everywhere, in shop windows, on products, on billboards etc. QR Codes might have limitations, which may have stopped adoption elsewhere, but that has not stopped the widespread adoption in China. You no longer access a website by entering a URL in the address bar in your browser.

On the flip side of this mobile first adoption is that it is leaving behind an aging desktop legacy. I am lead to believe based on observations and recent articles that the number one desktop OS here in China is still Windows XP. This is no surprise to me, many people probably don’t own a desktop or laptop, opting for mobile phones and tablets. Interestingly the majority of big clients and Government agencies I work for are also still predominantly using Windows XP, I guess holding off till it hurts, deferring to a BYOD strategy for certain use cases. However the trend I see in Australia is the adoption of Google Chrome for XP, its the proverbial lipstick on a pig, you can deploy a nice looking HTML5 UI but the UX still sucks. This trend will change as Microsoft is dropping support of XP soon, I believe it is April 2015, around about that time Google has said they will no longer support Chrome for XP also.

The stats say there is a large Chrome user base China, however from what I can see here in China based on my own access, using Chrome on XP is probably not an option and this uptake may come from Android devices where Chrome is pre-installed. I am not reading or seeing any uptake for browsers like Firefox and Opera either. shows whilst dropping rapidly, 3% of China still uses IE6 for a browser and of the remaining 10% that makes up the Desktop portion aging IE browsers rule, given the number of internet users those numbers whilst low in percentage are very scary. This definitely presents a technical challenge for Enterprise Software or start-up companies thinking of breaking into China and i am sure there are many who want to. Continue to support IE8, with ES6 and HTTP2 round the corner that is a massive overhead. Or hope that users will only want to use you apps on the web kit/chrome browser on their phone. Or goto where the users are, redesign mobile first, break out the QR codes and install the WeChat SDK. I think Smashing Magazine article says it all “Do China Mobile right or don’t bother”.