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Half of Chinese are downloading mobile apps

And with hardly a smartphone in sight

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Research firm Canalys reckons that over half of Chinese people surveyed have downloaded applications onto their phones - more than twice the level of downloads seen in Europe.

Not only that, but while their European contemporaries are downloading fart generators and time-filling games onto smartphones the Chinese are reading books and learning languages on feature phones with little more than J2ME functionality.

Almost 70 per cent of the Chinese who download applications are reading books on their phones, according to survey of 1,515 people in China carried out by Canalys. That's closely followed by applications for accessing social networking sites such as QZone.

QZone is interesting not only because it's bigger than Facebook (reporting 567 million users), but because users will pay for mobile access to it - a revenue stream that Facebook can only admire from afar. QZone makes money by owning the currency used in within-service games, though respondents to the Canalys' survey said they'd happily pay more than £1 a month for mobile access.

Those same users are already buying applications by the bucket load - 51 per cent of those questioned download apps, compared to 22 per cent in a similar European survey. But it's not Apple driving mobile applications in China, it's the mobile operators which have created usable application stores selling J2ME content though easy payment mechanisms linked to mobile bills. Those compete with manufacturer's application stores, including Nokia's Ovi, and third-party stores.

It's an opportunity that western operators comprehensively failed to grasp, beyond a few games. European operators certainly had the opportunity to insist on more consistency in Java, forcing manufacturers to reduce fragmentation, but never saw selling applications as a worthwhile business and thus ceded the business to Apple and its ilk. Only now are the operators trying to reclaim that ground through the Wireless Application Community, using AJAX apps, but it's hard not to conclude that it's too little, too late.

In China it seems that operators can see the value of Java, and have provided the means to make money from it too, even if it's only to render electronic books. ®

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