Car-hailing apps in China
More than mobility
The ambitions of Didi Kuaidi, Uber's Chinese rival, go far beyond taxi-hailing
FOREIGN internet giants often struggle in China. Facebook, Twitter and Google are largely irrelevant on the mainland.
Uber, an American car-hailing app that is conquering markets everywhere else, is also finding China hard to crack.
But unlike those other tech titans, the taxi disrupter is not being frozen out by unfair Chinese regulations favouring local firms.
Uber's biggest problem is that it has encountered a world-class local upstart.
Didi Kuaidi was forged last year by the merger of rival taxi-hailing apps controlled by Alibaba and Tencent, two Chinese internet giants.
It now dominates China's online market for personal transport.
Last year it arranged 1.4 billion rides in China, more than Uber has done worldwide in its history.
It has perhaps two-thirds of the market for private-car rides (the source of most of its revenues)
and provides a taxi-hailing service in several hundred cities.
Uber, with a third of the market for private-car service, this week announced plans to expand to cover 55 Chinese cities.
Both have spent heavily on subsidies to lure drivers to sign up.
Unlike Uber, which in China focuses on private-car services, Didi lets users select a taxi,
private car, shared car, shuttle van or bus to pick them up.
During next month's Chinese New Year mass migration, when millions of travellers will encounter sold-out flights and trains,
Didi will help users share intercity rides at prices comparable to train fares.
It has also forged alliances with, and invested in, Uber's rivals elsewhere:
GrabTaxi in South-East Asia, Ola in India and Lyft in America.
Jean Liu, Didi's president and a former Goldman Sachs dealmaker, helped Didi raise $3 billion to take on Uber.
Soon half of the global market will be on her alliance's technology platform, Ms Liu says,
which will help both Chinese people travelling abroad and foreigners visiting China.
But getting people from A to B is just the start of Didi's ambitions.
It plans to offer a variety of other services that make the most of its huge base of users and the trove of data it holds on them.
On January 26th the firm announced an agreement with China Merchants Bank (CMB).
A growing number of Didi's drivers want to buy a new car, and many have a steady income thanks to the app, but often lack formal credit.
Didi and CMB will start offering car loans—first to drivers, but in future perhaps to passengers as well.
Didi's app already lets passengers book test drives of new cars on behalf of several carmakers, including Mercedes and Audi.
Some 1.4m customers have taken one of 92 models for a spin since this service was launched in October.
Perhaps Didi's quirkiest new sideline is that of matchmaker.
Hitch, its ride-sharing service, will soon allow drivers and passengers to select each other based on their shared interests.
It already has a deal with LinkedIn, to let people join up their accounts on the two networks.
The intention of such initiatives is that white-collar workers, who often endure daily commutes of an hour or two,
will have more fruitful journeys during which business, friendship and maybe even romance will develop.