Baidu Light App could help developers crack China….eventually

baidu logoOn Thursday Baidu made a pretty major announcement in the mobile apps space which wasn’t covered in a lot of detail by the international press, but I reckon this one could be a biggie for developers everywhere in time.

Light App is Baidu’s answer to what CEO Robin Li described as a “fundamentally flawed” app store system, whereby less than 0.1 per cent of apps account for 70 per cent of downloads.

It’s bad for the user and it’s bad for the developers ultimately, as not many can practically and efficiently reach large number of content consumers.

No problem, says Baidu. Alongside your basic mobile app, simply design a web app which can run on Light App and it will be made available to users hassle free, without the need for download and install, via a Baidu service.

Logging into Light App, users can search for ‘new apartments’, for example, and it will call up all the apps that may fit the bill – ie ones offering local listings and alerts. They may never have found these apps otherwise and certainly would use them so infrequently as to not warrant the hassle of downloading them.

It might seem a bit rich for Baidu, which has just spent $1.9bn on buying app store firm 91 Wireless, to complain about flawed app stores, but what it’s trying to do does make sense, and can be seen as another attempt by the firm to gain another foothold in China’s lucrative mobile internet.

It’s still very early days for this one, and success or failure will depend on how the developer community takes to it, but I reckon it could be particularly useful in time for devs outside the Great Firewall.

Baidu has been taking baby steps with engagement with non-Chinese devs in recent months and if Light App resources are eventually made available in English, it could be a real boon – helping otherwise virtually undiscoverable applications reach the attention of Chinese users.

Mark Natkin, MD of Beijing-based consultancy Marbridge Consulting reckons so too. He told me the following:

I think the new Light App platform should be beneficial to all developers, both domestic and foreign, in that it makes it easier for users to try an app without having to download and install it, allows users to search for apps not only by the app’s name but also by its content (which improves the ability of long-tail searches to find the type of app that most closely matches the user’s needs), and allows apps to more easily integrate a variety of functionality developed and provisioned by Baidu (like voice input, etc.).

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Chinese firm builds prototype Android e-ink smartphone

Have been doing a bit of digging on an interesting new handset from Chinese e-reader firm Onyx International – what could be the world’s first Android-based smartphone with an e-ink display.

Frustratingly the only source we have for this is a brief demo of the prototype device on geek site armdevices.net.

What we can see, however, is it’s a pretty fully functioning smartphone, albeit running a slightly old version of Android, with web and email capabilities, a capacitive touchscreen and ARM Cortex-A5 processor.

The benefit of e-ink of course is that the screen is not made of glass and so is thinner and lighter, and not prone to cracking. It also makes the phone really easy to see in direct sunlight – something LCD displays singularly fail to do, especially under the glare of the summer Hong Kong sun.

It also slurps less battery, and so could apparently last on a single charge for around a week, and the lack of a glass display means it can really lighten the whole device – this one is said to be under 100g.

On the minus side, e-ink currently only really works in greyscale and screen refreshes take a lot longer than LCD displays – video is impossible and even basic tasks can take an age compared to what impatient smartphone fans are used to.

So what’s the ideal use case for this kind of smartphone? Well, the elderly perhaps, or emerging markets.

The problem E-ink, and indeed Onyx will have will be the budget Android smartphones from the likes of ZTE, Lenovo and others and indeed scores of lesser-known Chinese handset makers.

These vendors are increasingly targeting that sub-1000 yuan end of the market with LCD display devices which may be unreadable in direct light, but are a hell of a lot more responsive and, unlike e-ink, are the type of device Android is actually designed to work with.

One potential solution would be in re-architecting Android to largely deal with e-ink’s limitations – ie on-screen refreshes – but there is still the colour problem.

I’ve been so far frustrated in my attempts to find out exactly what kind of developer magic this would entail – and if it’s even feasible at all – but will update if I hear back.

My hunch is that it’s still at a very nascent stage development-wise and there’s only a limited amount of people working on it. For now at least, the best chance for e-ink to get onto a smartphone is for secondary displays on the rear of devices.