Is WeChat the future?

by on August 11, 2015 at 1:15 am in Economics, Games, Web/Tech | Permalink

This Connie Chan article about mobile in China is difficult to summarize or excerpt, but it is one of the most important pieces of the year so far.  Here are the opening bits:

This post is all about WeChat, but it’s also about more than just WeChat. While seemingly just a messaging app, WeChat is actually more of a portal, a platform, and even a mobile operating system depending on how you look at it.

Much has been written about WeChat in the context of messaging app trends, but few outside of China really understand how it works — and how it can pull off what for many companies (and countries) is still a far-off vision of a world managed entirely through our smartphones. Many of WeChat’s most interesting features — such as access to city services — are not even visible to users outside of China.

So why should people outside of China even care about WeChat? The first and most obvious reason is that it points to where Facebook and other messaging apps could head. Second, WeChat indicates where the future of mobile commerce may lie. Third, WeChat shows what it’s like to be both a platform and a mobile portal (what Yahoo could have been).

Ultimately, however, WeChat should matter to all of us because it shows what’s possible when an entire country — which currently has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 1/3 of its population) — “leapfrogs” over the PC era directly to mobile. WeChat was not a product that started as a website and then was adapted for mobile, it was (to paraphrase a certain movie) born into it, molded by it.

Do read the whole thing, this is also one of China’s first major innovations in the classic sense of that term.

1 Daryl Choy August 11, 2015 at 1:29 am

It’s funny that people in Hongkong seldom use wchat for networking. And it is amazing that people now talk about the importance of WeChat when WeChat is already not something new in China. I’ve been using WeChat since day one, and there is just one simple message for those who now finally shift their focus to WeChat. Good luck and enjoy. WeChat is way ahead of any social media tools now available in the world.

2 Tyler August 11, 2015 at 2:38 am

Whatsapp got here first – WeChat was too late in HK.

3 twchau August 11, 2015 at 2:47 am

And many Hong Kong people are skeptical about everything from mainland China, either looking down on their quality, or suspect them to by spying.

4 prior_approval August 11, 2015 at 10:49 am

Spying? No way – not the PRC, because the future looks, apparently, like something the NSA could only dream of, but never implement.

5 Ray Lopez August 11, 2015 at 1:56 am

Now imagine WeChat teaming with Hello Kitty,and promoted by that ubiquitous girl band that’s always dancing and posing from Korea. World beaters!

(There is a Great Stagnation)

6 JC August 11, 2015 at 4:28 am

Seems to me WeChat is more “complete” than WhatsApp but the latter beats WeChat in “population” which is pretty important for social networks because when chatting is the main use of the platform the ability to find friends is a great asset. However, as the article states, WeChat looks like the future and if they manage to get global traction before other players start copying their product they could be the next big star in tech world.

I first heard of WeChat two years ago when the first edition o Big Brother Angola was launched by South African company DSTV and its Angolan subsidiary DSTV Angola because WeChat app had an option to cast votes that was highly publicized. I have WeChat app on my phone but I barely use it once WhatsApp is my primary chat app because it’s simple to use and widely used by people I often talk to, however, I wouldn’t mind if I could used it to book appointments or pay utility bills.

7 Jake August 11, 2015 at 5:16 am

Nice article, but sort of avoids two elephants in the room.

First, there was significant pushback when Western internet companies tried to do much less invasive things. Have the Chinese simply accepted that they’re going to be surveiled no matter what, and thus are more willing to surrender their data to one entity? There could certainly be large efficiency gains if people stopped caring about privacy — and also if they learned to fly.

Second, every software project in the history of the world that tried to do everything for everyone eventually became an unmanageable, unmaintainable mess. “Do one thing, and do it well” is one of the core design principles at all levels of software, from individual functions to entire programs, and it was learned through repeated failure.

8 ac August 11, 2015 at 5:48 am

Totally agree on this second point. WeChat sounds – and looks – like a late-90s website: cluttered, stuffed, and messy. I’ll admit I don’t totally understand why I, as a user, want all these things in one app?

I’d try it, but I’m skeptical.

9 Alex Godofsky August 11, 2015 at 9:23 am

WeChat actually just sounds like it’s supplanted the base operating system as the application platform. Like… OK? This is innovation? The only thing described in that article (and to be fair they make a big deal out of this) that significantly distinguishes “WeChat” from “Android” is the built-in payment API.

Oh wait.

10 John August 11, 2015 at 3:56 pm

The author describes micro-apps with smaller granularity than something you’d see at the Android or iOS app-level.

That is interesting, as a guy who has written apps, it seems more aggressive. By that I mean, it might be less fearful of what possibilities you create. I mean, a “wallet” with multiple providers, credit, debit and tbd? That says you want change and will manage it as fast as you can.

11 John August 11, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Good point. Apple (or at least Tim Cook) recently floated the idea that “we don’t want your data.” In reality, they do, and they must, to provide quality service.

12 Axa August 11, 2015 at 5:34 am

From the perspective of risk management, why put all the eggs in one basket? If WeChat is ever hacked, it will be more troublesome leak compared to what happened to Target or Home Depot.

From the perspective of end user daily issues, smartphone battery lasts around 24 hours when you really use it, at least monthly upgrades and total phone life is 2 years. Convenience of mobile payment is replaced by the worry of entering any room looking for an electricity outlet. Desktop software or WWW sites are not updated that often, you can be confident that if the WWW site works, it will still work and work the same way for a year or two. This longevity and confidence does not exist in mobile environment. Right now, after an upgrade for my smartphone it connects with my laptop but it’s invisible to my desktop. Finally, the boring tasks of migrating to a new phone due to end of life or simply fail. It’s nice to never input passwords in a smartphone to access mail and messaging but when the phone dies, it takes a while to get all apps running.

Compared to 2015’s WWW Internet sites, mobile apps are most of times faster and cleaner. Today, even the great banking WWW site I use frequently is clogged with marketing info and slowed by useless images. Banking site is supposed to be focused on giving me data and make payments possible but bank managers decided that some point accumulation program is more important that looking at my monthly statement right now. Internet provider site is the same, the bill is buried below service upgrades and how to get a new contract info. I don’t know if the neat service offered by apps will last, perhaps is just a limitation of CPU, RAM and available bandwidth in mobile devices. If these limitations are overcome in the future, mobile apps may be as clogged as WWW sites.

13 Andao August 11, 2015 at 5:54 am

Wechat is vastly overrated. Yes, its software is probably better than WhatsApp. And yes its wildly popular in China. But go to Hong Kong and Taiwan and see what they are using. If it can’t pick up steam there, why would it be successful outside of culturally Chinese areas?

It’s not terrible from a technological standpoint, but its also vastly overrated in terms of popularity. Why hasn’t QQ dominated the world over the past 10 years? Same idea.

The Chinese gap with the rest of the world internet continues to grow. This article was published before full censorship of Chinese wikipedia so the connection is probably even more distant now: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/515056/how-the-great-firewall-of-china-shapes-chinese-surfing-habits/

14 AC August 12, 2015 at 10:14 pm

The point is not about WeChat per se. It’s more about how its business model will spread. Facebook etc are already copying it…

15 benjaminl August 11, 2015 at 9:03 am

I’m troubled by the author’s verbing of words such as “incent” “surface” “architect” “onboard”.

16 Anon August 11, 2015 at 9:45 am

WeVerb??

17 Mark Thorson August 11, 2015 at 12:04 pm

I think you mean “verbization”.

18 John August 11, 2015 at 4:00 pm

Get with the times:

The earliest example in the OED is from a July 23, 1818, letter that the poet John Keats wrote to his brother Thomas after visiting Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Here’s how a poem in the letter describes the cave and its distinctive basalt columns: “This was architected thus / By the great Oceanus.”

http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2013/07/architectural-criticism.html

19 Slocum August 11, 2015 at 10:02 am

So, in other words, even more of a borg than Facebook in seeking to encompass all possible functions of the internet under the control of one app and one company. Bleech.

20 John August 11, 2015 at 4:16 pm

Is it a parallel of Facebook, or a parallel of the Internet itself?

The Internet is an environment enabled by standards. It seems that WeChat is much more about creating an environment with higher level standards, than a destination in the Facebook sense.

( People who don’t know software often think that the Internet is an unstructured free market thing, but no http://ietf.org/ )

21 Brian August 11, 2015 at 8:26 pm

> People who don’t know software often think that the Internet is an unstructured free market thing, but no http://ietf.org/

I’m not sure what your point is. Compliance with IETF standards is voluntary; when vendors follow its standards, it’s because they think interoperability will benefit their products.

22 John August 11, 2015 at 9:38 pm

Sure, “voluntary” in the sense that if you want your packets to be routed, you better comply.

If you are fine with your data going nowhere in the big world wide web, sure, be a free market rebel.

23 Brian August 12, 2015 at 3:25 pm

> Sure, “voluntary” in the sense that if you want your packets to be routed, you better comply.

I specifically mentioned this: “it’s because they think interoperability will benefit their products”.

24 John August 12, 2015 at 3:36 pm

That’s not really much different than the voluntary cooperation between the companeis that make hubs for cars and those making the wheels — there is a standard for the bolt/stud patters (say 4 x 100 mm) so that the card can actually have wheels that let it go somewhere rather than becoming (in way too many cases) simply a big, ugly sculpture.

One could also point to various standard (kerberos at one point) where one company implmented the standard in a way that made it effectively proprietary and not interoperable..I think Adam SMith talked a little about this type of thing back in the day 😉

25 John August 11, 2015 at 9:43 pm

Seriously, this is what annoys me about libertarian white-washes of the great public-private partnership that is the Internet. Either your really don’t understand when you say “just voluntary,” or you are being disingenuous. You don’t understand the government’s (ARPA) design, or you are willfully attempting to hide it.

26 Al August 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

I like this excerpt from the article: “I cannot emphasize the importance of this Wallet enough. It’s the Trojan horse that allows WeChat to quickly onboard user payment credentials that then unlock new monetization opportunities for the entire ecosystem. “

27 aMichael August 11, 2015 at 11:37 am

Isn’t this just a different operating system operating on top of an existing one? If I were to read the article without any reference to the name of the software or the location of its users, I would think you were just describing Android or iOS to me. I don’t see the difference other than that this one was created in China and tailored more to the needs of that market. Can’t I already have all of my information — my contacts, my credit card numbers, etc. — loaded onto multiple apps on my Android and iOS mobile device?

28 John August 11, 2015 at 4:20 pm

One one side, loading a credit card into multiple apps is hard. On the other side, Apple and Google seem driven to mediate, rather than free, in-app purchases. So it seems we can’t get to this freewheeling integration just yet. Perhaps after we are lapped by the Chinese.

29 Noah Smith August 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Connie Chan is awesome. She was a guest speaker in my entrepreneurial finance class!

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