China’s most widely used search engine, Baidu, has revealed a partnership with France Telecom to bring its mobile web browser to African and the Middle Eastern users — signaling a step towards expanding global internet connectivity and international mobile growth.
Initially made for Chinese smartphone users, the Baidu Mobile Browser, revamped and dubbed El Browzer, will be tailored for Africa and the Middle East, being available in English, Arabic, and French. Its initial release through France Telecom’s Egyptian operator Mobinil has been the first network launch of the browser in a market that has seen a particular uptick in demand for Android devices. Another France Telecom-owned network operator, Orange, has deployed 3G networks in Africa as users move towards low-cost Android smartphones and away from feature phones.
The notion of a search engine bringing a mobile browser to low-cost smartphones is not novel; Google’s Android platform is a favorite in this category. Yet Baidu does not bring an entire operating system to smartphones; rather, its browser will function on Android’s platform. Baidu’s previous edition of its mobile browser is available on Android, Windows Phone 7, and Symbian operating systems in China only, but Baidu has reason to look to other shores to deliver its internet service: UCweb and Tencent, operators of UC Browser and QQ Browser respectively, own the lion’s share of mobile traffic in China.
Price and access have been obstacles to mobile adoption in AMEA, but with Orange as the next network operator lined up to bring El Browzer to users in the region, the operator’s 80 million mobile customers will have the option of gaining access to the internet on mobile devices. The goal of the co-branded browser is simplicity, affordability, and ease-of-use to bring access to web-based applications and internet services in regions that have remained largely unconnected.
The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) released its annual Mobile Observatory Series in which it cited that sub-Saharan Africa should see mobile penetration reach 75% of the population by 2016 — a statistic that leaves much ground to cover for mobile broadband providers. Studies such as the GSMA’s point to urgent opportunities for U.S.-based mobile software providers: AMEA and sub-Saharan Africa will not long remain untapped markets. While Google has a leg up in the African market already, Apple executives regularly quell Apple’s “low-cost iPhone” rumors, and reveal no plans to make moves in these regions. As tech giants like Apple stay silent on exploring product launches in AMEA, expect to see others firms in Baidu’s line of enterprise move in.