How a decade of smartphone apps changed the way people live, work and play in China

Coco Feng

When finance industry employee Ringo Li relocated back to Beijing from Tokyo in 2010, he brought along his first smartphone – an iPhone 3G. Although one of the most advanced handsets available at the time, it was mainly used for text messages and phone calls, and occasional internet-surfing where Wi-fi was available.

Life was mostly offline back then. Li would go to restaurants to order food, pay bills with cash and hailed a taxi with an outstretched arm standing on the roadside.

Fast forward 10 years and Li’s life has completely changed. No longer in finance, he communicates via WeChat and uses apps on his iPhone XS to order food, hail taxis, pay bills, and shop.

Most of the apps that permeate the daily life of Li and hundreds of millions of other Chinese had their beginnings at the start of the decade.

Launched in 2011, WeChat started out as a messaging app like WhatsApp and Line but quickly grew into a super-app, offering additional functions like payments, and today is used by 1.15 billion Chinese.

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Food delivery giant Meituan was founded in 2010 as a Groupon-like group-buying website before merging with rival Dianping in 2015 to create China’s largest lifestyle platform.

The mobile version of Alibaba Group’s Taobao e-commerce platform was also launched by 2010. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Over the past decade, “China has rapidly evolved from a copier to an innovator,” said Michael McLaughlin, a research analyst at the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

In one important way, China had a head start in the age of apps because the country quickly leapfrogged personal computer technology and quickly moved to mobile devices. By 2012, the number of mobile internet users outnumbered those accessing the web via computers. The mobile internet population grew five-fold within 10 years, reaching more than 847 million by June 2019, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

The WeChat success story is testament to how the 2010s will be remembered as the decade that saw a drastic change in how Chinese make friends and consume information.

And in Ringo Li’s case, it changed his life. In 2014, he began blogging on his WeChat public account, writing about mysterious cases and unconventional figures, such as the sinking of the M.V. Sewol and Japanese doomsday-cult group Aum Shinrikyo.

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What started out as a personal interest grew beyond expectations, and he accumulated more than 500,000 followers through the years. The income from ads and tips from WeChat alone generated a monthly income of tens of thousands of yuan.

“WeChat has got me fame as well as friends who share my interests,” Li said, who has even been approached by film directors asking about potential movie adaptations of his writings. He is now exploring other channels to distribute content, such as podcasts and short videos.

Jane Chen, a 29-year-old living in the southwestern Chengdu city, is another typical Chinese smartphone user, who relies on apps not only for chatting, but also reading news, paying bills, reserving yoga classes, ordering food, and hailing rides.

“Sticking out your hand to call a taxi on the street doesn’t work well now,” said Chen.

At the start of the decade, that was the only way to get a taxi, but that all started to change thanks to former Alibaba Group salesman Cheng Wei. After reading about UK ride hailing company Hailo planning to expand in the US, Cheng realised China's fragmented taxi industry – where getting a ride during peak hour was near impossible – was ready for a similar app.

Within the first four years of launching Didi Chuxing in 2012, Cheng would defeat more than 30 rival ride-hailing apps. To gain market share, these apps started offering subsidies to passengers and drivers, funded by billions of dollars in venture capital. Before long taxi drivers in cities like Beijing and Hangzhou- who originally resisted the idea – would only accept passengers who booked via the ride hailing apps because it meant they earned more money from the subsidies.

A woman walks past a sign for Didi Chuxing in Beijing, China January 2, 2019. Photo: Reuters

The second half of the decade will also be remembered as the time when Mao-era bicycles came back to China in a big way – with a hi-tech twist – before quickly becoming a high-profile victim of China's tech sector hype.

Bike sharing was not an original idea, but what Chinese start-ups like Ofo, Mobike and dozens of other rivals did was to free up the bikes from dedicated docks, making them easy to find and pay for via an app.

The business model was even praised as one of the “Four Great New Inventions in Modern China”, by Chinese state media – the other three being ultra high-speed rail, mobile payments and online shopping.

At its peak, Ofo was present in more than 250 cities across 21 countries and Mobike has covered more than 200 cities in 19 countries.

However, as competition squeezed smaller players out of the market, their bikes remained, cluttering up the streets in cities like Beijing, eventually ending up as huge piles of scrap in junkyards.

Ofo was hit by a cash crunch late in 2018 and has struggled to keep its business afloat, while Mobike was sold to on-demand online services giant Meituan Dianping in 2018. The smaller Bluegogo was acquired by Didi two years ago.

The bike sharing bubble was an early warning sign for China’s tech investors, who during the second half of the decade ploughed tens of billions of dollars into loss-making ventures that were essentially built on traditional businesses that were updated with an app.

“People were betting with their eyes closed,” said Finian Tan, founding partner and chairman of Vickers Venture Partners. “Valuations for some companies reached a level that didn’t make sense.”

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The ubiquity of mobile apps was built on the popularity of smartphones, which signalled a new era when the Android operating system overtook Nokia’s Symbian in 2012. At first, Chinese smartphone users embraced foreign brands like Apple and Samsung, the latter being No 1 with a market share of 20 per cent in 2013. Over the following years though Samsung fell out of the top five in China in the face of stiff competition from Chinese rivals Huawei, Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi, and the Korean company closed its last smartphone plant in China in October. Apple hung on, ranking No 5 in the third quarter, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

At the start of the decade, smartphones were based on 3G technology and China was a laggard. Within 10 years, the country had leapfrogged the west and was touted as the world leader in technological development and network deployment for 5G, said Zhong Zhenshan, vice president of IDC China.

Smartphone apps also enabled another life-changing trend – one that would consume many hours of each day for many Chinese: watching short videos.

In China, users spent an average of 600 million cumulative hours watching short-form videos, according to the 2019 Internet Trend Report. Kuaishou, founded in 2012, is popular with residents in rural areas and among working-class users and some of its viral videos include farmers showing off their carpentry skills and Navy sailors recording life out at sea.

Despite a later start, Bytedance’s Douyin, which is known as TikTok outside China, has quickly risen to become China’s top short-video app with more than 320 million daily active users as of July.

Models pose with Motorola's Android 2.0-based Motoroi during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. Photo: AP

Julia Zhu, a 27-year-old Beijing resident, used to spend two to three hours a session on Douyin but has now limited that to one hour. To kick the habit, she even resorted to uninstalling the app but ended up reinstalling it several times.

“Douyin feeds me content based on my interest and viewing history. It’s very easy to stay on Douyin for a long time,” she said. Before the advent of video apps, Zhu had to download videos from online before watching them, but did not spend much time on this activity.

TikTok has even become the first successful Chinese app in the mainstream US and European markets. It was the seventh-most downloaded app of the decade, topping YouTube and Twitter, according to App Annie.

However, TikTok has come under increasing scrutiny from US lawmakers and regulators recently, over concerns about data privacy and security.

Matthew Brennan, a speaker and writer with a focus on Chinese internet and tech innovation, said that while China argued that Washington's backlash against TikTok and telecoms giant Huawei was to block Chinese competition, it ironically mirrors what happened 10 years ago when Beijing blocked Facebook and Twitter from the Chinese market.

As the 2010s come to a close, Li, the social media entrepreneur, is confident he can find a way to reach his audience even if the next decade brings new technology that changes how people communicate and consume information.

“Original content is always needed, but the channel or the format I am going to use depends on the future market,” he said.

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