China: Apps & Online

CEO @ Novoda developing the world's most desirable mobile products. Kevin has developed for print, web, desktops and mobile and can confirm that they all take a long time to do right.

Happy Chinese New Year everyone!

I have started wading into the unfamiliar and disorientating digital territories of Chinese websites and apps. Previously I took for granted how much I've learned through casually clicking links but a lack of Chinese language understanding really hinders even casual browsing. Google Translations are cryptic and then there are the untranslatable, walled garden apps.

I spent western new year in Beijing, China and it was there I realised how reliant I was on App habits native to London & Berlin but currently incompatible with China. Lots of goto apps and services are unavailable and even with access, some are unreliable sources of local information.

Whether curious or planning a holiday (I recommend it) I’d have appreciated this guide before arriving. Plan and download all your apps BEFORE you leave because at the time of writing there was no access to Google Play in China.

If you are just curious for a bunch of links to click check out below!

App stores

App Stores

Messaging

Weibos

Taxi

Video

Maps

Payment

Shopping

Restaurant

Translation

Now the details

I'll go into each section with a few more details of personal experience.

App Stores

There are supposedly 200 app stores in China however I think really there are under 10 of note. These will mostly come with people’s mobile phones or be downloaded through banners while browsing mobile services. Starbucks advertises on the few below so I'd trust they want to be in front of the greatest audience: QQ:应用宝, 百度手机助手, hiAPK:安卓市场, Wandoujia:豌豆荚安装, Mi:小米商店, China Mobile:移动应用商场, 360手机助手, Anzhi:安智, 91手机助手

Shopping

Shopping

Alibaba got the jump on Chinese e-commerce and after starting with an import export specialist website spread out to direct consumer offerings Taobao & Tmall. Taobao is like ebay but with more emphasis on users who have stores. Tmall is like a verified seller shopping mall, you have to be quite a big glossy brand to appear on Tmall. Jingdong is really the only competition to Alibaba in China. Jingdong offers the mall like experience to consumers like tmall but it supposedly has much more reliable shipping options. Amazon isn't getting much of a look in totalling only 1.5% of china's online sales according to iResearch. But I did see Amazon delivery bikes zooming around Beijing.

It's vital to remember China percentage figures are relative amounts of HUGE.

Maps

Maps

Paper Maps; take up room, don’t show my location, don’t intelligently direct and smaller ones don’t have enough info. I love Google Maps in Europe/America and so was really shocked to find them rendered wholly unreliable wandering around Beijing. I can only suppose that when Google pulled out of China they also stopped paying for updated map data because while I relied on Google Maps I was directed to building sites and hospitals which were labelled as hotels.

Baidu Maps was not just a sufficient replacement but really impressive glimpse of map apps in the future! It did everything I expected around directing me to the location with a few neat tricks to boot. Luckily downloading the local area of Beijing was pretty painless although a large download. Once the maps were local there were super responsive and really useful for orientation. As i progressed along the mapped route on foot, along the way icons of special offers from nearby shops and services peeked into view. Once at destination high-rise towers I could without fail click through different floors and see conveniences and offices on every floor. Very impressively accurate and fine grained maps across the city. There was an icon to hail a cab integrated into the maps but I didn’t try it out as I had enough trouble chatting with Uber cab drivers who would inevitably call upon every booking.

Translation

The Taxibook app is paid but if you are going to get anywhere in Beijing on a short holiday without speaking any Chinese I recommend you get it. Otherwise you had better get a native speaker to write down your hotel and intended locations so that you can flash it at impatient taxi drivers or random locals. You'd best just write down the hotel anyways.

Plecco is there for all your one word pointing to respond needs, It’s a fantastic dictionary resource for full-time Chinese language learners and the OCR translation that it offers is unparalleled and super impressive offline.

Google Translate is excellent if you can get it through a VPN.

Phone Numbers, SIMs & 3G/4G

My mobile network caps the possible charges incurred via roaming without explicitly phoning to allow them to charge over the cap which is usually good but I was there during Christmas/New year and so alas I couldn’t get through. :/ So if you are spend thrift and are going to rely on crazy Europe > Asia roaming charges then remember to remove the cap before leaving.

Getting an alternative data SIM didn’t turn out to be easy either. I’m told by local guides that up until some point in 2015 buying a SIM was easy. They were as shocked as I was when I visited in Jan 2016 it was quite a commitment. They could only suppose it was due to a recent crack down on 'cyber crime'. First I needed a local to vouch for me with an address and their phone number before I committed to a short term contract which would need to be terminated before my departure from China otherwise I’d continue paying as per any usual monthly contract. Not exactly convenient for foreign traveller just trying to get some smart phone data.

All the digital services are charged and connected to phone numbers so you will certainly need a phone number if you are going to use any digital services.

Messaging

Messaging

In Europe/US people ping over Facebook and Twitter and these two services are inaccessible through local internets. Plenty of Chinese people in cities continue to use these services through a VPN. On the whole though Chinese services are preferred.

In China everyone’s faces are pressed into their phone... messaging. WeChat IDs are scribbled in felt tip next to dumpling sellers in the street, on the bottom of TV and magazine adverts. Street sellers also share their WeChat QR codes and offer discounts in exchange for giving you a WeChat ID. To be honest I’m still not completely clear on the appeal and use cases but I think people subscribe to receive push notification offers. The dumpling guy will let you know about fresh dumplings, the restaurant will take your order ahead of schedule. As it’s a 1-1 service and not 1-many it seems like a drop in replacement for SMS rather than twitter.

Most everyone I met in tech was using WeChat although I’m told it’s fairly recent that it’s gained so much traction. Until recently QQ was the mainstay and it is what I have been using to speak with my Chinese teacher online. Skype / Google Hangouts voice and video quality were wholly unreliable and would constantly drop/echo but moving to QQ, conversation is crystal clear.

Weibos

Weibo means micro blog and as you can say a lot more in 140chars in Chinese than in English they feel like a difference beast in China. 140chars can be like 60/70 words so its less micro and more bloggy. Twitter is inaccessible without a VPN although plenty of people use it, not nearly as many as use Sina Weibo. Sina Weibo is the most popular social network for brand marketing but from what I can see all the most famous American celebrities are the most popularly followed accounts! It's worth noting also that instead of Google Sina is the most popular login method in China.

RenRen used to be a popular Facebook alternative and still has 219m activated users. It likely has the same draw as Facebook in that if you only use one service online it will likely be this one through legacy but if you are a savvy user you'll use this network less. The network looks a bit dated and needs some love. I think Facebook sees what is on the cards and so is making major efforts to friendly up to China and take over from RenRen.

Video

Video

YouTube is not accessible in China and so Youku rules the roost. It has lots more 'premium' content on there though focusses less on the average home video blogger. National TV stations upload lots of their content and there lots of films on there. Youtube videos often find themselves to Youku ripped and then re-uploaded.

Taxi

Pre-plotting my destination on a map before confusingly justifying it in my speckled Chinese was a god send. Uber had a bumpy start getting up and running in China however now I think they are operating as usual. Good news is that your normal Uber account will function as normal and is connected to your phone number so all normal billings. In Beijing there were plenty of Uber vehicles on the road and they were generally pretty friendly however I noticed I wasn’t given a chance to rate any drivers but they were rating me. There are two other local services to consider but who really don’t offer at the moment much outside of Uber as far as I can tell. DiDi is the main player with massive amounts of funding, its a bit cheaper than Uber. But considering how crazy cheap (£3 for a 15min ride?) I found it I decided to stick with what I know while I can get away with it. Didi and Kuadi have now merged and so I expect them to quickly try and snuff out Uber's hard won influence in the region.

VPN

You’ll have to search close to your trip as it seems VPNs come and go. At the time of writing I used ExpressVPN and it served me well on wifi connections but didn’t work so well on mobile networks. Anyone staying in China for any significant length of time would definitely need a VPN. VPNs are not illegal in China although they certainly are not encouraged.

Restaurant

FourSquare seems alive and well although didn’t have a massive selection and is only available through VPN. TripAdvisor seems to have a completely different load of chinese character 汉语 reviews on their .cn version of their domain. Seems everyone is pretty wise to the effect of positive reviews on TripAdvisor and so it’s popular in the bigger restaurants that they’ll encourage you to comment. The top places on Foursquare and TripAdvisor both felt like a very small selection of possible options compared to the huge variety on offer and so have became tourist traps. Probably because of people’s lack of general connectivity to quickly contribute new reviews.

TripAdvisor, Eleme, DianPing, Baidu Waimai, Foursquare

Payment

You will need a bank account to get a local phone number Phone numbers are used as identifying logins for many services. Alipay is accepted in a lot of places in Beijing! There are no transaction fees. Zero! Also there is a nice escrow service which allows you to put money somewhere before a deal has been agreed with someone so they know you have the money. I tried a few burner options like hush but on a short holiday it was more hassle than it was worth over a short trip. Hush is good in the west when you need a phone number to set up though.

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