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It has 400 million users. But have you heard of it?

Yu Yongfu w

Surf’s up: UCWeb boss Yu

In 2004, Sergey Brin went to Beijing to visit Baidu, the Chinese search giant. Trying gamely to make conversation, Brin asked Baidu founder Robin Li if it was true his company’s logo was, in fact, a dog paw. Li replied, somewhat tersely, that it was a bear claw.

Baidu is not the only Chinese internet firm to feature an animal in its logo design. Tencent has a penguin. Sohu, a portal, is named after a fox to convey nimbleness and intelligence, while Jack Ma chose a cat as mascot for his consumer site Tmall because of the feline association with fastidiousness. Ergo Ma wanted to signal Tmall’s commitment to a high-quality customer experience.

UCWeb, China’s most popular mobile browser, has also gone for an animal association, choosing a squirrel (nimble and fast, it explains) and like the rodent gathering nuts for winter, the company has been steadily taking market share from rivals. Launched in 2004, UCWeb enjoys a 40% share, says Statcounter, a web tracking agency, and has 300 million users surfing the web via the UC Browser on their mobile phones. Its closest competitor Tencent had 37% of the same market in the third quarter of last year.

About a quarter of UCWeb’s users come from the pre-install deals with hardware makers like Samsung and Nokia, while the remainder come through direct downloads in the Android market (iPhone users must jailbreak their phone to use the browser).

But why is the browser so popular? For a start, it’s said to be fast using cloud computing to compress data. The technique allows UCWeb to offer quicker download speeds and reduce data usage (Amazon’s Kindle Fire Silk browser uses the same trick).

The browser also incorporates features tweaked specifically to the surfing habits of Chinese users. For instance, the browser stores everything that people have on their computers including virtual currency accounts (very important for online gamers), social network shortcuts and navigation services. That makes surfing on smartphones a lot easier.

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

UC Browser is available for free. But as the browser maker, UCWeb then funnels mobile users towards search engines with which it has revenue-sharing agreements (including Baidu in China and Google in the US). About 85% of revenue is derived from this source and the rest comes from online games that run off the browser.

Yu insists that UCWeb is already profitable, although he doesn’t provide any figures. UCWeb recently announced that it is also gearing up its global expansion, focusing on promoting its browser in Brazil, Vietnam, Russia, and Indonesia over the next three years.

To expand overseas the company will have to compete against much larger rivals, including Google’s browser Chrome. But Yu is unfazed, reckoning his firm has advantages in developing markets because Chrome was designed for the higher memory specifications devices typically seen in more developed markets. Yu claims browsers like Chrome run less well on devices that have less memory chip capacity, as is often the case for smartphones made for markets such as India, where UCWeb already has market share of almost 27%.

The goal, says Yu, is for UCWeb to acquire as many as a billion users by 2016, half of them abroad. That’s ambitious. Of the 400 million UCWeb users currently, a quarter are are outside China.

“What we need is more courage,” Yu told the China Daily, offering a philosophical addendum on what he views as the inverse relationship between levels of education and courage. “The more education we have, the more we hesitate.” Knowing less, by comparison, gives you more courage “when facing the risks of going global,” he posits.

It’s an interesting perspective. And as UCWeb looks to expand its horizons abroad, it sounds like graduates need not apply…

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