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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Baidu’s $2 BILLION gamble on mobile apps

baidu logoChinese search giant Baidu has just agreed to pay $1.9 billion (£1.3bn) to acquire mobile app store provider 91 Wireless Websoft in the biggest internet M&A deal ever in the People’s Republic.

Commentators have already been arguing over whether nearly $2bn for effectively two mobile app stores is a good deal for China’s biggest search company.

As with all acquisitions, only time will tell, although it’s certainly a statement of intent for the firm and one it needed to make with the likes of Alibaba and Tencent all making big mobile internet plays.

Beijing-based Forrester analyst Wang Xiaofeng said in comments sent to me that it was a smart move for Baidu to “assure its competitiveness in the age of the mobile internet”.

“Alibaba is working on its m-commerce strategy through its investment in Sina Weibo and an [offline to online] strategy through the acquisition of Autonavi; Tencent is digging out monetisation possibilities from its killer product WeChat, including eBusiness and mobile payment,” she explained.

“91 Wireless’ strength in mobile applications will be a great complement to Baidu’s current business.”

As to exactly what Baidu is buying, well the main bit of 91’s business is two app stores – 91 Assistant and HiMarket – which apparently lead the domestic market with over 10 billion downloads.

This will give Baidu a great distribution channel for its own apps, and to be honest the deal shows a good degree of self-awareness from the web giant – it knows more users in China find info on the mobile net via apps than mobile web-based search engines.

Whether it proves to be a great piece of business or a stunningly ill-judged waste of money remains to be seen but I’d lean towards the former.

Baidu certainly couldn’t sit back and let its rivals gain the initiative in the brave new world of mobile and if this acquisition doesn’t work out it could well be because it left it too late before pouncing.