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Game's changed in 6 years: open source ecosystem thrives

By Ma Si | China Daily | Updated: 2017-01-09 08:45

Chen Bo, a 37-year-old software developer with Beijing-based Cheetah Mobile, remembers clearly how isolated and closed China's software environment was in 2010. That was a time when the mobile internet revolution was taking hold of the world's most populous country.

"Every app developer saw his or her software codes as the most precious assets and would never share them with others. You could say the scene was equivalent to people securing their family jewelry in plastic wraps and locking it in burglar-resistant safes," Chen said.

That was also a time when even employees were allowed access to only a part of the codes they were working on, to pre-empt information leaks to competitors.

But the scene has changed over the last six years. China has blossomed into one of the world's most dynamic hubs for software developers.

Chen and his ilk have become active contributors to the world's major open source software platforms. They are eager to share computer programming know-how and even the whole IT infrastructure of killer products on Apple Inc's iOS store and Google Inc's Android app store Google Play.

Tech giants such as Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd also regularly organize events to promote exchange between experienced IT coders and greenhorns, in the hope of cultivating a more robust app-developer ecosystem in China.

"We no longer fear that others would outcompete us if we share codes with them. Six years of trial and error have established Chinese developers' technological prowess and our reputation in the international arena. Our products have become increasingly popular in overseas markets," Chen said.

The story of Chen and his employer Cheetah Mobile, which he joined in 2013, epitomizes the trend.

Different from the first-wave of Chinese internet players such as Baidu and Tencent, which rely on the domestic market to thrive, Cheetah Mobile gets 80 percent of its more than 612 million monthly active users from abroad. The firm has managed to achieve that within six years.

Its rise is meteoric yet well-plotted. When Chen shifted his attention from PC-based software to apps for Google's Android platform in 2010, he still needed to explain to his friends what he was working on, for the idea of Android was still relatively new to domestic consumers.

Cheetah Mobile started to zero in on overseas markets after competition in the domestic market intensified in 2012. It worked hard to adapt itself to foreign markets.

"Our strategy is straight-forward: develop utility apps, which are hardly subject to cultural influences and enjoy universal rigid demand," Chen said. The firm quickly gained a presence by rolling out Clean Master, the Android junk cleaning app, and CM Security, which protects smartphones with anti-virus software and privacy.

But cultural obstacles still popped up. "Users in the Middle East complained against an ad on our app because the girls on that ad wore off-shoulder tops," Chen said. "We then worked hard to localize our apps as per overseas sensibilities."

Cheetah Mobile found advertisement revenue hard to come by as users generally don't use e-tools and apps of the kind it develops every day. So, it is transforming itself into a content business via research and acquisitions. It now operates popular apps like live streaming app, mobile game Piano Tiles and news aggregator News Republic.

"We used to be blinkered. But as long as our mindset is free and knows how to play the game, we will pounce on any opportunity to scale up. Chinese developers are defined by fast speed," Chen said.

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