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Spartan Apus Launcher conquers 30 million users internationally

Chinese company Apus has released its pared-down Android launcher to massive international success. But it's doing it without focusing on the Chinese market. We sat down with founder Li Tao to find out why.

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CEO Li Tao has ambitious plans for his company's Apus launcher. Apus

Building a business is no longer regional. It's international or nothing.

Founded by Li Tao, a former VP at Chinese software giant Qihoo 360, Apus is dedicated to building the smallest, fastest, simplest user system for Android it can. The Apus has picked up more than 30 million users around the world since June, made RMB 100 million ($16.3 million) in Series A funding and employs 100 people in Beijing, but somehow it's managed to fly under the radar until now.

Li's reputation as a respected personality in the Chinese tech industry precedes him. He's made his name by spearheading Qihoo's international arm and confides that he left the company in May to fly solo, severing all ties. "We have no connection to Qihoo," Li attests.

But he's borrowing from his international experience at the Chinese software giant. Apus is making a name for itself by targeting overseas markets, rather than local Chinese users. And for a Chinese company, launching to the international market first is definitely going against the grain.

But so far, Li's choice seems justified. Apus Launcher is on track for 50 million total users by next month. The app has also peaked at No. 1 in more than 30 countries in the Google Play store.

Apus

But why tackle the international market in the first place? To put it simply, it's a matter of market opportunity, and as Li explains, "the overseas market is three times larger than the China market." More importantly, the competition isn't as "fierce" as it is in China, where the four tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Qihoo 360 (not to mention tens of thousands of smaller competitors) jockey for marketshare.

In many ways competing in the international market is the easy way out of a hard problem. "There are three types of Internet markets - the US Internet, China Internet, and everyone else. We're targeting the US and everyone else," said Li.

In fact, Apus is one among a recent string of companies from China, including Baidu and Sungy Mobile, to go global, and if you look closely these have a single tie that binds them together. These apps promoted in the global markets aren't mobile games. In fact, these are primarily utility-based applications -- whether it's Baidu Browser, Go Launcher, or others.

Unlike mobile games, utility applications are easier to localize, Li explains, and not surprisingly a mobile app is typically a company's best shot at picking up users around the world. All that needs to be done to customize an app and meet the needs of launching in a specific country is to be translated into the country's language, be it English, French, Chinese, or Korean.

In fact, if we're to compare Chinese companies with its US counterparts side-by-side, Li argues that Chinese companies are more skilled at microlocalization, and they benefit from the fact that they aren't afraid to sell to second tier markets.

Apus is Li's bet that not everyone in the world needs, nor wants, to download sophisticated Android launchers. Apus Launcher, compared to other launchers on the market, is stripped down, minimally memory intensive, and packs a diminutive file size of just 1.7MB. But in effect, Apus is particularly suited for owners of bottom of the barrel smartphones (namely in developing regions like South East Asia and Latin America).

At the same time, this stripped down version is handy in attracting users from developed markets including the US and Europe. If you were to compare users of WhatsApp with users of WeChat and LINE, you'll notice that western users have a special preference for clean, pared down products.

Apus might not have as many features as its competitors, but it's a no-frills launcher for users that want a solution that gets the job done.

There's an added bonus however. Despite its small size, Apus' baked-in intelligence provides its users with a convenient way to organize their home screen, without actually having to make an effort to clean up. Most frequently used apps are at first launched to the first page of Apus Launcher's home screen, while remaining apps are automatically categorized on the second page of the launcher. A few competitors offer these features, Li admits; however he claims that Apus is able to organize the user's home screen the fastest.

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Apps are arranged for easy access. Apus

"We want to start by solving the problem of making it easy to use our system, like how Apple has managed to get users to adopt its products," said Li.

The company plans on launching additional features including an in-app search engine. When questioned about how it'll manage to keep its file size small (and value proposition consistent) as they iterate the product, Li points out that Apus is named after a genus of one of the fastest birds in the world for a reason. For the sake of its users, Apus guarantees that it'll remain small, fast, and simple, even forsaking snazzy new features that would otherwise be touted in competing apps.

"We'll let the product speak for itself," said Li.