A developing market

For Chinese software engineers, iPhone Apps are proving big business

A developing market

Now on a million iPhones

Over 2 million iPhone users in China have downloaded applications from Apple’s App Store to look up English words, get traffic updates, and check stock quotes.

That number is expected to rise as the nation’s iPhone userbase increases – with China Unicom now aggressively pushing sales of the handset.

Good news for people like Zhu Lianxing. Zhu is probably China’s most successful developer of iPhone applications. Today, Zhu runs a 10-man team in Baoding, a city in Hebei province.

Although Zhu, who is 34, had years of programming experience, he had never built a game using Objective-C, the coding language of the iPhone. So he took a training course hosted by Apple in Beijing back in July 2008.

The cost of entry was also low. To place an app on the iTunes store, developers pay a $99 fee to join the iPhone developer programme and download a free software development kit that helps set applications in a framework suitable for Mac-based devices.

Once an application gets approved by Apple, the game is listed at the App Store and developers will start receiving payment. Apple keeps 30% of the revenue from each sale and gives the rest to the developer.

The first application Zhu developed was not quite what you might expect. The LoveForecast, a personal ovulation calendar, monitors the menstrual cycle. Zhu told the Bund magazine the download rate for the application was “satisfactory”. After Apple’s share of the profits, Zhu made about Rmb2,000 ($292).

Zhu’s biggest earner, however, is the Colourful Aquarium, a game that allows players to design their own virtual aquarium for their iPhone. Colourful Aquarium has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide since it was launched in June, bringing Zhu more than Rmb2 million in revenues. At its peak, the app was making him about $1,000 a day, Zhu told the Bund.

But competition is heating up. There are over 85,000 apps available through the online store, so if an application doesn’t make it to the top rankings soon after its release, it will probably never be heard of again. “Only applications in the top 50 make money,” Zhu admits.

Larger local players are also trying their luck. For instance,, a leading web portal, has promoted its applications on the App Store to feed users with Chinese news, and let them update their blogs from their iPhones. Tencent, the internet company that runs the dominant Chinese instant messaging system QQ, also offers its services to iPhone users in China.

The popularity of Apple’s App Store hasn’t gone unnoticed by other telecom companies. Handset maker Nokia is in the early stages of opening a store for its own handsets, and mainland telecom giant China Mobile has already opened its own app store called Mobile Market.

Though small compared to the App Store, Mobile Market is trying to catch up. Since opening in August, around 5,550 mobile apps have been approved for sale and over 270,000 developers have registered with the online store.

“One major difference between Mobile Market and Apple’s App Store is we provide service over many operating system platforms, not just one,” says Reading Gao, general manager of China Mobile’s data services department.

As for Zhu, he is now busy converting his games for Android – Google’s operating system for cellphones.

“App Store only serves the iPhone, while Android can work on many smartphones. As time goes by, I think that Android will have a much larger user base,” says Zhu. “Once Android becomes mature, we will be first in the market.”

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