China’s leading mobile chat app, a product of Tencent, the country’s largest Internet company and one of the top five in the world by market cap, has achieved virtual ubiquity in the Middle Kingdom, taking up residence on the handsets of the young and old. It enjoys the sort of dominance in China that Facebook enjoys in the US. And it’s only going to get bigger.
Today, WeChat claims 500 million users, with 100 million outside China. Think about that for a bit. Half a billion users, in just over two and a half years of existence. Facebook only hit that number three years ago, as a six-year-old company. At that point, it had a blockbuster Hollywood movie made about it. I can’t wait for “WeChat: The Movie,” presumably starring Jackie Chan as Tencent CEO Pony Ma, getting sensual massages in bathroom stalls from excitable college girls.
Naturally, this being the Internet, and this being China, and this being a smartphone app, WeChat’s actual user numbers won’t really be half a billion just yet. In fact, its active user-base is “just” 236 million, according to its most recent financials. That compares to 300 million active users for WhatsApp, which has been around since 2009.
But come on. How are we not talking every day about a 30-month-old smartphone app that has 236 million active users and was born completely outside the US? (And when I say “we,” I mean us non-normals who spend our lives obsessing about Internets.)
More importantly, why are we not learning more from it?
If you ask me, WeChat provides a glimpse of the consumer Internet’s future. Here in the US, we’re still freaking out about Snapchat and Vine and Twitter and Square. But WeChat has the reach of all of them and is arguably just as powerful as a platform, with similar functionalities. It’s also perhaps the best example of a mobile-era Facebook analogue that the world has seen to date.
“WeChat is now pretty much a complete Platform with a capital P – complete with a feed, ways for businesses to participate, games, monetization,” says James Hsu, a product manager at Yahoo Beijing Research and Development Center, who I interviewed via, natch, WeChat.
“I would say just about anyone 35 and under is using it,” says Hsu. “On subways, it’s the No. 1 app I see open next to maybe the game du jour or an e-reader. Even some of my friends’ parents started using it. It’s a bit like Facebook in that respect.”
In that sense, it’s keeping company with Japan’s Line, and South Korea’s Kakao, both of which claim more than 100 million users, and, increasingly, Canada’s Kik, which now has 90 million users and is building out its own HTML5 platform. But none of those apps can claim the scale that WeChat has, nor can any of them hope to crack China, the world’s largest Internet market. WeChat is too entrenched, as hopeful competitors such as Yixin and Sina Weibo’s mobile app are finding out.
People in China are using WeChat for the things for which Americans have long relied on email, Skype, Facebook, Yammer, and SMS. It’s not just about photo-sharing, or voice-messaging, or texting, but also group chat, playing games, and conducting business.
Wendy Chen, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based startup Ominstream, which focuses on relationships between luxury retailers and consumers, says business executives use WeChat for internal work communications, and it’s not just small companies. She knows of several large real estate and infrastructure conglomerates who rely on WeChat for those very purposes. Part of the advantage is that WeChat lets them communicate with voice messages rather than trying to type Chinese characters, or, as she refers to it, “our convoluted language.”
In her previous startup, Chen used a WeChat chatbox for handling external communications, because Chinese customers prefered to ask questions that way rather than turn to the company’s hotline. She also says that one of China’s highest-grossing beauty retailers recently said in a closed-door session that 2 percent of its online sales can be traced directly to its WeChat channel – numbers that would make Facebook cry. (Don’t go treating that figure as gospel, though – it’s from a second-hand source reporting informally on a session that wasn’t subject to public scrutiny.)
Some people assume that what works for China won’t necessarily work in the US. And while that’s actually in many cases totally true – I doubt, for instance, we’re all going to start making reservations for tables at Pizza Hut, which in China is considered a fine-dining establishment – it doesn’t mean we should disregard the lessons from China’s smartest Internet companies, which include ecommerce giant Alibaba and hot mobile startup Xiaomi but is especially true in the case of Tencent.
While China might be behind the US in terms of Internet development in key areas, including design, infrastructure, and founders who look like Jack Dorsey, it is a long way ahead in one crucial aspect: the use of smartphones as the primary Internet device. Smartphones are cheap in China, especially compared to desktop or laptop computers. For many Chinese, phones are the first and only way they’ve ever experienced the Internet.
We’re seeing the same patterns in the US, as people spend more time in smartphone apps than they do on the desktop-mediated Internet. It’s just that the legacy of the desktop is taking longer to fade in the US, because the larger computers have been central to our Internet experiences since most of us found out what the Internet is.
The social Web exploded in the middle of last decade, before the iPhone existed, before smartphones and data plans became affordable to the masses. In those days, it made sense that a service like Facebook, built and designed for the desktop computer, grew to dominate our social behaviour online. That Facebook has been able to (partially) adapt for the mobile era has obscured the fact that it is not well suited to the smaller screen, portable experience, which is built around the address book and private networks.
But WeChat is well suited to that world. In fact, it is that world. WeChat is in 2013 is what Facebook was in 2010.
I can’t wait to see what it looks like in 2016.