Asia’s biggest e-commerce companies are preparing for the computer-free future

Time to get the shopping done.
Time to get the shopping done.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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Earlier this month, China’s internet conglomerate Alibaba rolled out an app that lets Taobao sellers set up and manage their stores entirely from their mobile devices. The small business shopping platform doesn’t want the app to be just a complementary tool, but a complete replacement for managing a store from a desktop or laptop. Two million of its 8.4 million sellers have already signed up.

Just a day earlier, the popular Indian e-commerce start-up Flipkart said that within a year it will eradicate its website altogether and become a mobile-only app.

If the idea of switching off a website seems extravagant or even foolhardy, the trends provide a convincing argument. A year ago, mobile transactions accounted for just 6% of all Flipkart transactions; today, they account for about 60%. Three years from now, India is projected to have more mobile-only internet users than it has total internet users today.

The picture is the much the same in China. In the fourth quarter of 2014, Alibaba reported mobile users accounted for 6.4 billion yuan ($1 billion) in revenue, up from 1.2 billion yuan a year earlier, and 42% of its transaction volume came from mobile compared with just 20% a year earlier. Internet users in China’s developed cities have already, generally speaking, abandoned desktop computers and opted for either laptops or smartphones. And in the next wave of cities and towns to develop—those furthest from the country’s wealthier east coast—the overwhelming trend will be to leapfrog both desktops and laptops entirely.

Alibaba is certainly doing its best to help that trend along. It announced a deal today with China Telecom to sell inexpensive smartphones in rural areas for as little as 299 yuan ($48).