Facebook made what appeared to be a minor announcement today when it said Indian users can have Facebook notifications pushed to them via a mobile web browser called UCWeb. To the 41% of Indian smartphone owners who already use UCWeb, it doesn’t sound very groundbreaking and the deal isn’t likely to impact revenues at either company by much. Outside of India, it got almost no media coverage.
But it represents a big move for Facebook. That’s because UCWeb is a Chinese app, fully-owned by the Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba, and Jack Ma, Alibaba’s CEO, sits on its board.
With China unlikely to lift its ban on Facebook (in place on the mainland since 2009), CEO Mark Zuckerberg needs to find alternative ways for his company to tap China’s 600 million-plus users. One way would be to forget about Facebook’s social network for now, cooperate with local players to earn credibility, and build services afresh for the Chinese market.
Facebook has been trying this for some time, to no avail. In 2011 it was in talks with Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, but Baidu got cold feet after considering the potential political implications of working with a banned American company. This week Reuters reported that Xiaomi declined to formalize investment discussions with Facebook over similar concerns. The tie-up with UCWeb could finally mark the start of Facebook’s push into China, by linking it with one of the country’s internet giants.
One clue as to the importance of the UCWeb deal is that this is the first time any company other than Facebook has been granted the ability to push Facebook notifications to the social network’s users. Previously, the only way to get real-time updates was to download Facebook’s own app. (Or to open Facebook.com on a browser.)
No details about the cooperation have been published so far (Quartz’s request for comment from Facebook has gone unanswered) but there is no doubt that in UCWeb—or rather its parent Alibaba—Facebook has found an ally in a position to offer a genuine leg-up in a market it has coveted for a long time.