Something big happened in April 2018. For the first time in half a decade, Alibaba-owned UC Browser was no longer the No. 1 browser in India. Google’s Chrome had pipped UC Browser to the pole position.
This was no small feat.
At the peak of its popularity, in 2016, UC Browser had about 60% mobile market share by page views in India, according to web analytics service Statcounter. The nine-year-old browser, rarely used in the west and virtually unheard of outside Asia, for years dominated both the Chinese and Indian markets, fending off Google’s global browser muscle.
However, in the past one year, the tables have turned on UC Browser. As of April 2019, its mobile browser market share stands at a mere 24.5%. In sharp contrast, Chrome’s market share has soared to nearly 60%, up from under 15% in early 2016.
Simply put, UC Browser is now a blip in Chrome’s rearview mirror. The aftermath of a tug of war between Alibaba Group, the Chinese internet conglomerate that runs the country’s largest e-commerce platform, and Google. One that has shaped how Indians access the internet—and could very well help dictate which ecosystem wins in one of the world’s fastest growing smartphone and internet markets.
UC Browser’s dramatic downfall can be attributed to three seemingly disconnected happenings: Google’s aggressive grab for the next billion users, rapidly declining data costs in India and, ironically enough, the rise of Chinese smartphone manufacturers in the country.
Six years ago, in 2013, Alibaba Group founder—now China’s second richest person—Jack Ma joined the board of UCWeb. Headquartered in Guangzhou, mobile internet company UCWeb was best known for its suite of smartphone services including a search engine, an app store, a gaming platform and, of course, its eponymous web browser.
At the time, UC Browser already dominated China, with a 50% share of the mobile market. And that year, it also overtook Norwegian browser Opera as the most used mobile browser in the next big Asian market—India—with a market share of about 30%.
Alibaba, which runs China’s largest e-commerce platform, owned a 66% stake in UCWeb, and in 2014 went on to buy the remaining shares in mid-2016, valuing the mobile internet company at $3.8 billion. Both Alibaba and UCWeb wanted to replicate its success in China—complete dominance—in emerging markets. Their first stop, naturally, was India.
Back in 2014, high-speed 3G data was relatively expensive in the country and price-conscious Indian consumers lapped up the browser for its ability to compress websites.