Mobile in China

Observations from a week in Shanghai

Julie Zhuo
Dec 4, 2013 · 4 min read

The city of my birth is like an in-progress painting. In every visit, she is a different picture. A street dumpling stand has now expanded to 50 eateries across the city. What used to be fields and fields of farms lining the road from the airport to the city is now an exhibit of cranes and high-rises. The tallest building just a few years back is now dwarfed by the observation deck one structure over. In a few more months, an even taller tower will be completed next door.

There is rapid development at scale. And then there is Shanghai.

I was last here two years ago. This time, the mobile explosion was impossible to miss. Here are some snatches and bits of what I observed and heard in the world of mobile:

The subway is the most fascinating display of people and their technology. At rush hour, with hordes of people packed like Pringles in a can, at least a dozen screens are visible to the eye. Roughly half the commuters on their phones or tablets are watching a movie or TV show (typically a Korean drama for women).

Wechat is the king of messaging in China. My cousins are on it. My aunts and uncles are all obsessed with it. QQ (popular during my last visit) and e-mail are pretty much dead. One feature I saw lots of people using was the ‘voice record’ option, probably because Chinese is a pain to type, and tapping a button to record and send a voice message was super lightweight (not buried behind a menu). It felt like a walkie-talkie. Also, stickers on Wechat are more advanced when it comes to animation.

Line train.

Line was promoting itself quite heavily in Shanghai. I saw an entire train covered with Line characters. In toy stores, next to Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma, you can find plushies of the Line mascots Cony and Brown.

Weibo is the popular Twitter clone of China. They even copied the 140 character limit, although 140 Chinese characters is a heck of a lot more expression than 140 English characters, and is therefore akin to a short paragraph rather than a sentence. A good chunk of billboards in the subways showed brands prominently displaying full Weibo URLs. Looks like they didn’t adopt the short @handle url convention or the star “favorite” action, choosing instead to borrow the Facebook thumbs-up “like” icon.

Apple is a huge status symbol in China. Everybody covets an Apple phone or tablet, even though they’re about 20% more expensive than in the US, and people make a lot less on average. There are two large Apple stories in Shanghai now, both opened within the last 3 years. My uncle and aunt had iPhone 5Ss. My cousins had 4Ss or 4s. I didn’t see anybody using a 5C yet, although the ads were plastered all over the city. I heard stories about how the 5S in gold commanded a much more premium price in China than the other colors because gold was deemed higher status. I did see a few folks with giant Samsung phones on the subway (generally playing movies), but word from my cousins is that while some people had Android, it wasn’t much talked about.

The strangest thing about iPhone usage in China was how most people had accessibility mode turned on. In other words, a persistent tab was always covering some part of the screen, though you could move it around along the edge. I wasn’t aware this feature even existed, but apparently you can use it to avoid having to use the power and home buttons. Baffled, I asked my cousin why this option was so commonly turned on. She said it was because people were concerned about their home button malfunctioning (apparently it’s enough of a meme that multiple people I talked to cited this reason) and as repairs are expensive they’ve resorted to not using the hardware buttons altogether.

Decorative headphone jack accessory. Alas, the position of the jack on iPhone 5 probably disrupted this industry somewhat.

The second strangest thing was the accessories people had on their iPhones. In stores, there were whole aisles devoted to circle stickers that would cover your home button and little figurines—ducks, deers, ninjas, anything—that you could plug into your headphone jack for decoration. There were even figurines for your Lightning port as well, and those were marketed as “dust protectors,” though how you manage to not lose these guys every time you want to charge or use headphones remains a mystery to me.

Snapchat or a Snapchat-like clone: nobody seems to be using or talking about this yet.

Didn’t see a lot of Instagram usage, but many people had heard of it. Unlike Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, it actually works in China.

A tower defense game seemed to be the most popular mobile game. Tons of people were playing it on the subways. Internet cafes are still around, however, though mostly used now for PC gaming. League of Legends is big, as are MMORPGs, including hype for the recently launched new Korean Blade & Soul. During the week, people play PC games with their friends at home, but on Saturday afternoons it’s popular to go to an Internet cafe and game together in person.

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Thanks to Mike Sego

    Julie Zhuo

    Written by

    Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

    The Year of the Looking Glass

    A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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