Apr 282014

Chinese ecommerce group Alibaba and mobile browser company UCWeb will launch a mobile search engine. The move is aimed at challenging rivals Baidu and Tencent and buttressing Alibaba’s presence on the mobile internet ahead of its US IPO later this year.

The project, known as Shenma (“sacred horse” in Mandarin, though it sounds similar to the phrase for “What?”), was announced on Monday by UCWeb, Alibaba’s joint partner in the launch, which makes a popular internet browser for smartphones with 500m users worldwide.

Alibaba took an undisclosed stake in UCWeb last year, part of a strategy to secure a foothold in the mobile internet where rival Tencent currently has an edge due to its hugely popular Weixin (WeChat) and QQ mobile messaging apps.

Alibaba and UCWeb are gambling that China’s top ranked search engine Baidu, which has more than 60 per cent of the country’s internet search market, may be vulnerable when it comes to the mobile internet, where smaller screens may not favour the traditional search engine that generates pages and pages of loosely targeted results.

Shenma, which launched on Monday as sm.cn, will offer “unique, mobile centric features” according to a press release by UCWeb, which will make it more convenient for mobile users who want to search China’s fragmented app market for content, and who want more precise searches instead of scrolling through pages and pages of results on a mobile screen.

Roughly 500m Chinese were using smartphones to access the internet at the end of last year, up from 420m at the end of 2012, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre, a government agency. Many analysts are forecasting that the mobile internet may one day usurp the traditional internet in popularity.

Yu Yongfu, UCWeb’s chairman and CEO, said “every commonly used search engine in the marketplace today was developed for the desktop, and offers a mobile interface that is only skin deep. By taking a mobile first approach to search, Shenma will integrate search technology into the full scope of user experiences.”

UCWeb holds a controlling stake in Shenma, Mr Yu added in an interview Monday. He declined to say how much had been spent on the project.

Mr Yu will be chairman of the joint venture, while Liang Jie, chief technology officer of UCWeb, will serve as the president of the JV. Shenma’s search engine is based on Alibaba’s own search engine. Alibaba will also be supplying additional user data to the project to help refine search results.

“By the end of the year mobile search queries will surpass desktop search queries” Mr Yu told a press conference on Monday “mobile search is a new area, there is no king. Everyone is at the same starting line.”

“We are a mobile centric company. We believe the internet will be centred around mobile rather than desktop browser” said Mr Yu

Baidu has invested aggressively in mobile internet, clearly aiming to take its hegemony in search to the mobile internet. Last summer it purchased 91 Wireless, a mobile app store, for $1.9bn.

Alibaba is expected to file for an initial public offering in the next few days which is expected to be one of the largest ever listings. Some analysts have valued the company at anywhere from $80bn to $200bn.

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