Pando

This Mobile Social App Is Way Bigger than Instagram, and It’s Made in China

By Hamish McKenzie , written on April 24, 2012

From The News Desk

China Internet giant Tencent has just released version 4.0 of Weixin, a social instant messaging app for mobile that now counts 100 million users. In true China cut-and-paste fashion, the new release combines elements of Instagram, Path, Google+, GroupMe, Bump, HeyTell, and Facebook in one powerful offering that the blog TechRice suggests could one day overtake Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging platform that claims 300 million users. It also offers an English-language version called WeChat.

Weixin, which is essentially the mobile version of the massively popular QQ instant messenger, presents a fascinating study in China’s Internet economics. For a start, it was built by Tencent, much like Q Pai, the Instagram-like photo app we mentioned the other day. The in-house approach accords with Tencent’s general strategy to build its own products and leverage its 700 million-strong QQ user-base. Alongside Weixin, Instagram's 40 million user count seems trivial.

Weixin also offers a prime example of how Chinese Internet companies are not only willing to "borrow" ideas from their American counterparts, but also tweak them to provide a better (or, at the very least, different) consumer experience. For many Chinese users, though, there is no question: This thing is big.

Among the new features that some think will make 2012 the Year of Weixin are Instagram-like photo-editing effects (why not?), Path-style photo albums that auto-upload to user timelines, and controlled social sharing features that closely resemble Google+ Circles. Tencent has also opened up the Weixin API to allow third parties to feed their content into the platform. One of the coolest uses of this comes from the integration of QQ Music, which lets users stream songs from within their timelines. Why doesn’t this feature exist in US-made social mobile apps? (Okay, maybe Facebook has that for Spotify, but I haven't seen it on my mobile app.)

There are a bunch of other intriguing Weixin features. One of them is the ability to shake your phone to find new friends. You’ll then be automatically connected with people within a 1km radius (that’s .062 mile), who happen to be shaking their phones at the same time. The chances of a serendipitous connection are not as slight as you might think: The service records 100 million shakes a day.

There’s also a cute “message in a bottle” game, in which users can “throw” a message out to sea in the hope that some random stranger will pick it up and reply. I gave this a whirl and had an interesting conversation with a 22-year-old finance graduate student at Nanjing University. During the course of the chat, I discovered that I could exchange voice messages with this person – just like HeyTell, but with a ChatRoulette twist. Our conversation went like this (edited for sense and brevity):

Original message from Chinese stranger: Nothing to say

Me: Agreed. Where are you?

Chinese stranger: China. And u?

Me: USA. Do you like this app?

CS: Just so so. But it’s popular among young people.

Me: How old are you?

CS: I’m 22.

Me: Ok cool. Do you think it will be bigger than Sina Weibo one day?

CS: ... they are different.

Me: I’m a reporter and I’m writing about this app. That’s why I’m asking all these questions.

CS: :( Commercial spy Weixin doesn’t offer quite the slickly designed experience that Path or Instagram does so well, but US-based startups could learn something from Tencent’s multilateral thinking here. While there is value in the likes of Path, Instagram, and Pair in focusing tightly on niches, Weixin also demonstrates that a catch-all, centralized experience also has its appeal. And the app, by the way, is totally cross-platform, available on Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, and Symbian handsets.

Industry watchers say that China lags behind the US in mobile development by one to two years. That might be true for now, but as smartphone market growth accelerates in China and savvy players like Tencent make aggressive moves in mobile, that gap will inevitably close. Apps like Weixin represent the beginning of that process.