UCWeb, Browser To China and India’s Millions, Seeks a Foot in Western Markets

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Not a household name quite yet in Western markets, China’s UCWeb — a mobile browser that has attracted a whopping 200 million monthly active users mostly in Asia — is looking to become one on this side of the Pacific. And it may be eyeing an IPO in a year or two as it rolls out a U.S. facing version of its browser.

UCWeb makes a mobile web browser that works across multiple platforms from Android and iOS to Symbian, Java and Blackberry and with at least 200 different models of phones. The company says it has picked up more than 50 percent of the market share in China and more than 20 percent of the market in India. That means they see more than 100 million phones in China alone with 35 to 40 million of them being iOS-based. (In general, Chinese smartphone owners tend to be much more likely to jailbreak their phones or install custom ROMs that modify the appearance and animations of icons on their devices.)

UCWeb says that it’s able to pick up users over other browsers like iOS Safari because of optimizations around speed and having more of a portal-like experience for Mandarin-language users. The company acquires its users both through pre-install deals with mobile carriers and through direct downloads. About a quarter of UCWeb’s users come from these pre-install deals and the rest comes from direct downloads.

“In emerging markets, people are very keyed into what mobile browser they’re using unlike in the U.S.,” said the company’s chief executive Yu Yongfu.

The next trick though will be to penetrate English-language and Western markets, where the company hopes to make an eventual IPO. UCWeb is shying away from Asian stock exchanges, as many Chinese IPOs have faced a far worse reception than even Zynga or Groupon on the NASDAQ.

“Obviously, we will want to keep the company independent. Eventually, I think it will go public, but right now the market is not very good. The Chinese market is even worse,” he said. “If we were to list in the U.S., the brand name of our company would be better.”

UCWeb makes about 75 percent of its revenue from advertising in the browser and then the rest comes from so-called “value-added services” like gaming revenue. Yu says that the company doesn’t face the same painful desktop-to-mobile advertising transition that Facebook and Google do. Mobile ad units tend to have lower cost-per-1,000-impressions or costs-per-click are lower, putting downward pressure on margins for the biggest web giants as consumers shift their attention to their phones away from laptop or desktop PCs.

“Monetization schemes on mobile phones are where PC monetization was about 10 years ago,” Yu said. “Over time, the gap will shrink.”

Founded back in 2004, the company has to grown to about 1,000 employees (as yes, the headcount of Chinese startups always tends to be four to five times larger than companies at comparable life-stages in the U.S.)