UC Browser alters India’s mobile web landscape

UC Browser commands 55% of mobile web browser market in India, a commendable feat when the competition includes Google Chrome, Opera

Sadhana Chathurvedula
Updated3 Nov 2016
UC Browser claims  80 million monthly active users from India, compared with Opera’s 50 million. Photo: Bloomberg
UC Browser claims 80 million monthly active users from India, compared with Opera’s 50 million. Photo: Bloomberg

Hyderabad: Five years after starting operations in India, UC Browser commands 55% of the mobile web browser market in the country, StatCounter data for September show. How did the company pull it off in the face of competition from giants such as Google Chrome and Opera?

For years, UCWeb Inc., a subsidiary of China’s Internet giant Alibaba, steadily rolled out updates designed for its Indian customers, like data saving modes, and blocking data-intensive ads by default.

Focus on content, too, helped. UC Browser has a cricket section with live scores and videos, built-in music in partnership with Hungama, and UC News, a content-aggregation service.

“Indians love content. They want to download videos but they are not able to because of the data speeds. We have done a lot of localization in this area with the built-in download manager and give access to content through partnerships,” said Robert Bu, general manager at UCWeb India.

To be sure, it’s not the only browser offering features like these any longer. Google’s Chrome division and Opera, too, have realized the unique needs of users in markets like India and have released a slew of updates.

Google in September announced Chrome will have a data saving mode, optimize web pages when on 2G networks and easily download media for offline use.

“We have made a strategic shift team-wide to prioritize the mobile web and helping users in mobile-first markets such as India. To prepare for building the best browsing experience in mobile, we conducted extensive research around user behaviour in India,” said Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, vice-president at Chrome, in an email response to queries from Mint.

“In some cases, we were missing some features that our users wanted, such as offline functionality. In other cases, we had useful functionality but didn’t make it easy for users to find them, for example the Chrome Data Saver feature. We also realized that for many users, specially new users, we needed to do more to help them find the content they cared about. We have worked quickly to address these issues,” Roy-Chowdhury added.

While Opera’s data saving modes were always popular, in January, it, too, announced that its browser would be available in 13 regional languages (UC Browser is available in 11 languages).

“India is the top market for us, but considering the potential for Internet growth here, we think the market is still there to capture. We have very strong partnerships with original equipment manufacturers and that’s going to be one of the ways in which we cater to new users,” said Sunil Kamath, vice-president for South Asia and South-East Asia at Opera Software.

Although independent experts agree UC Browser leads the market, there is some dispute about the extent of its dominance. Opera, for instance, claims 50 million monthly active users from India, compared with UC Browser’s 80 million. Opera has a 17.51% market share and Chrome has 15.73%, according to StatCounter data.

“UC has understood the needs of a new mobile user (especially in emerging markets) and has adapted its service to suit it, such as easy access to most used services. This enabled it to compete effectively with Opera. Chrome on the other hand does have a mobile first strategy but is supported by a suite of complementary apps by Google and isn’t a one-stop shop like UC. This differentiates UC from the very popular chrome browser,” said Neha Dharia, senior analyst at research firm Ovum Ltd.

UC Browser has essentially become a web-app platform. If you let it, the browser takes over phone functions such as lock screen, notifications and music player. Users can access app-like experiences of popular services like Facebook, Flipkart and Paytm from within the browser itself.

“UC wants to ensure users spend as much time as they can within the browser. Keeping the user within the ecosystem is a strategy followed by Facebook, Google and all the other big digital players,” said Dharia.

UCWeb’s 30 India staffers are supported by “a large group” in Guangzhou in China, according to Bu. UCWeb has more than 2,000 employees worldwide.

The firm credits its popularity to word-of-mouth publicity, but it has steadily been investing in traditional marketing channels. In August, it launched a television commercial to promote UC News. Last year, it hired cricketer Yuvraj Singh as brand ambassador.

UCWeb hasn’t always had it easy though. The firm was caught in a controversy in May last year over its data sharing practices. Documents leaked by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden showed the browser was sending personally identifiable information which was being used by Western intelligence agencies to spy on certain individuals.

Citizen Lab, a research lab based in the University of Toronto, published a report that identified security vulnerabilities in the browser in May 2015. An updated report from the lab in June this year said that UCWeb had fixed most of the vulnerabilities it had identified.

The controversy had prompted some concerned users to stay away from the browser, but many seem happy enough making use of the features it offers.

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