APUS Wants To Make Your Android Phone An iPhone With Its Launcher App

Google’s new Lollipop release has been heralded by many as a sign of the increasingly sophisticated design of Android, but despite that advancement there still exists a feeling that Apple’s iOS is the most aspirational mobile platform on the planet. But, with a new iPhone 6 costing upwards of $750 off-contract, many consumers — and particularly those in emerging markets where operators don’t subsidize devices — don’t have much of a choice about their operating system.

Enter APUS Group and its Android launcher app that aims to bridge the gap between Android and iOS, with a particular focus on cheaper devices running the Google OS.

Launched in early July of this year, APUS revealed that the launcher has now clocked 30 million downloads users worldwide. The company is based in China, as such it’s rather interesting to note that it claims less than 10% of these downloads have come on home turf. Instead the US, India and Brazil are its top countries, with Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia particular regional hotspots.

Dealing in download straight up user numbers provides just one angle since it gives no indication of engagement. An APUS representative claimed that 24 million people use the launcher each month, although we don’t have a figure for daily users, which would be more indicative of its traction. Nonetheless, the app’s initial growth and apparent engagement rate are impressive.

Launchers sound ideal in theory, existing as a primary layer that lets users customize their phone to easily access their favorite services or features without needing to dig into their app draw or waste time tapping through screens. But, in reality, it isn’t easy to convince users to download your app and rely on it to shape their experience.

Just ask Facebook. The world’s biggest social network may have over 1.2 billion monthly active users, but its Facebook Home launcher — released last year — has been downloaded fewer than 5 million times, according to its Google Play store listing. In short: it hasn’t generated anything like the adoption that was expected of it.

Bringing an iOS-like experience to Android

So what has APUS done to clock 24 million active users in just four months?

The launcher is basic by design and offers three core features: improved battery life, better app discovery, and enhanced search.

APUS claims it can save as much as 80% of a device’s memory when it runs — thanks to its size, it takes up less than 2MB of memory. That means more juice and that’s always appreciated, particularly by those with lower-end phones. There is also a ‘boost’ button which it says “cleans up” a device’s use of memory to help games or apps run quicker.

The ‘marketplace’ is essentially a curated selection of apps from the Google Play Store which is assembled based on the apps that a user has already downloaded. It also shows what apps are popular among users who are nearby. The overall idea is to help you sift through the hundreds of thousands of turkeys to find the apps and services that you’ll like.

Finally, its search integrates Google, Baidu, Bing and Yahoo to provide what it describes as more powerful and accurate results.

Most interestingly though, the general genesis is to make Android more iOS-like, as Penny Pan, Marketing Director at APUS Group, explained to TechCrunch in an interview.

“iOS is known for being the easiest to use mobile operating system, and we want to be the iPhone for Android. Our goal is to make Android as cool as iOS,” she said.

Apple has made big changes to iOS 8, which includes the addition of third-party launcher apps, but Pan revealed APUS will not be tackling the Apple platform.

“There are no plans for iOS,” she said. “We want to make our Android system smaller, faster and more simple with more and more functions for our users.”

An ‘apus apus’ is a type of common swift, in case you were wondering, and it symbolizes the lean, speedy launcher that APUS wants to offers, as its website explains:

Apus (Swift Bird) is among the fastest birds in the world, with a speed of 170kmph. They never rest, spends the whole life in air.

Apus Apus swift bird

No plan for monetization yet

Pan refused to divulge specific details of what might come next, but she did confirm that — having added notifications for WhatsApp and Facebook recently — alerts for others services will arrive, as well as on-device and in-app search functions.

With its impressive userbase generated after less than four months, APUS is not focused on making money yet. Given the way that messaging apps like Line and WeChat have turned themselves into platforms that make money via games, opt-in marketing and stickers, it would make sense for APUS to go down a similar route, or perhaps monetize its marketplace — though Pan said potential business models are not even being thought about at this point.

“Our goal is to build a platform but we want to make sure we provide a good experience, that’s our first goal. Our focus is still on quality and user needs,” she said, adding that regional tweaks may be made to the service based on feedback from users in particular locations.

On the subject of user growth, Pan said that the company has spent money advertising its service online, and it is using social media to build up word of the launcher and APUS itself. Facebook is a particular focus and is regularly used to run giveaways on its page — which counts more than 650,000 fans — including, somewhat ironically, iPhones as prizes. That, she says, again highlights the desirability of the iPhone, and the company’s aim to get Android on a par with it.

Chinese firms aiming overseas

Perhaps the most interesting part of APUS is the fact that it is a Chinese firm that is seeing success overseas.

Founded by Tao Li, who was formerly a VP with Chinese internet security/browser giant Qihoo 360, it has focused on the international market from day one, Pan told me. The company believes that its experience watching China’s smartphone boom gives it an advantage for catering to emerging markets that are a little further behind the curve.

“Chinese companies are good at mini-innovation and localizing,” Pan commented. “In many countries smartphone adoption hasn’t peaked yet, and we believe that Chinese companies can take advantage of that.”

With more money than ever floating around China’s tech crowd — thanks to IPOs from Alibaba, JD.com and Weibo this year alone, and increased investment from VCs overseas — it will be interesting to see if other entrepreneurs take Tao Li’s lead and use their experiences to start new, globally-focused companies. Certainly, many are in a better position to know and serve the needs of emerging markets than their peers in Silicon Valley.

Note: The article has been updated to reflect that APUS says it has 30 million users, rather than 30 million downloads.

Image of bird via Flickr user Billy Lindblom reproduced under a Creative Commons 2.0 license