Tencent touts all-round social app WeChat for smartphones

The WeChat software sells on its ability to merge disparate messaging and networking services into one platform - and to cater to Chinese users

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 1:33am


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If you think weibo is the trendiest social networking platform on the mainland, you are so yesterday!

In a move away from microblog services, the in-thing among the wired generation now is a smartphone software application called Weixin, or "WeChat", to give its English name, according to its developer, Tencent Holdings.

An e-commerce and gaming giant on the mainland, Tencent is banking on the voice and text messaging, social networking and group chat app to stay ahead of rivals offering mobile internet services and applications.

"Based on the popularity of smartphones and our understanding of what users need from mobile social networks, WeChat has been welcomed by a lot of users, especially the youth and metropolitan white-collar workers," Tencent vice-president Allen Zhang Xiaolong said.

Zhang is also general manager of the company's Guangzhou Research and Development Centre, where WeChat was developed.

Tencent's latest offering is similar to WhatsApp, a US-based cross-platform mobile messaging application for the iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, Windows Phone and Nokia. Between its launch in January last year and March this year, WeChat was used to make 100 million downloads, the company said.

Since March, Tencent has not released any update on usage or revealed how much it has invested in delivering the service.

Liu Xingliang, chairman of Hongmai Software, a Beijing-based internet data analysis firm, said a mobile internet was the growth trend in the cellphone industry. "More than half of the posts made on the internet nowadays come from mobile devices rather than computers," he said.

The ability to customise products for Chinese users is seen as the key to success by many big local internet names. For example, Sina's popular Weibo is labelled as China's Twitter; Renren resembles Facebook, and Tencent's flagship instant messaging service QQ, with 700 million users, is viewed as a copy of ICQ.

Now it has come up with WeChat, which it says will focus on creating an all-round mobile social communication platform. By comparison, rival WhatsApp was more of a short messaging service, or SMS, Zhang said.

Tencent's vision is of WeChat creating a world "where there are no strangers" through different functions that include a location-based service (LBS) and a Twitter-like function called "Moment" that is accessible only among friends.

Kai-Fu Lee, former head of Google China, once noted that mainland information technology firms had successfully tailored their products to the tastes of Chinese users, and Tencent's innovative app seems a perfect footnote to the remark.

The local characteristics built into new mobile apps now in the marketplace may seem small, but as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

WhatsApp users, for instance, are able to see other people's login times. And when they send a message, a tick appears on the message to show it has been successfully delivered and received. But tailoring WeChat to the preferences of domestic users, Tencent excluded that functionality to protect users' privacy. Analyst Dong Xu, of market research firm Analysys International, was approving of the modification. "Suppose you are in a situation in which it is inconvenient to reply to a message. If the sender knows you've got the message, he might feel offended if you don't."

That might sound like a small change, but it has made a big impression on users who believe Tencent is considerate. And the small changes keep coming - WeChat has been upgraded close on 60 times since its launch 20 months ago. The resulting user experience is a strong reason for its rapid growth, industry experts say. Audio messaging is not new; WhatsApp and other services offer the function as well. But Tencent had refined the service to suit local tastes, Dong said. "WeChat is the most convenient way to communicate. When you are driving, you can't send an SMS but you can talk. Also, it is time-consuming to type out a long message."

The service is also cheap in terms of data usage volume.

But the trump card for Tencent is its huge number of QQ users. "Which mobile instant messaging platform a user chooses will depend on which service most of his friends use, and this is the core competitiveness of Tencent," Dong said. "Its QQ messaging service has a vast user pool."

Liu said despite the many rivals on the mainland, none could rival Tencent because of its subscription base.

Other social messaging services include mi by Xiaomi, momo, igexin, shenliao and kouxin. The big three telecommunications carriers - China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom - have their own apps.

But with more than 100 million users already on its books and counting, Tencent is not stopping at the local market. "To be international is a significant target for WeChat," Zhang said. "We see … Hong Kong and Taiwan as key growth areas."

In Hong Kong, WeChat has been promoting brand awareness through marketing drives, including, most noticeably, a billboard advertisement outside the Cross-Harbour Tunnel at Causeway Bay. It has also held roadshows at shopping malls. John Chow, 24, a white-collar worker in Hong Kong, said he used WeChat to stay in touch with friends and relatives on the mainland. "Many of them use WeChat, and many Hongkongers are using the app because they have friends on the mainland."

WeChat launched its English website in India last month. "We are going to invest more to promote the internationalisation of WeChat, and to improve users' experience in Hong Kong and Taiwan," Zhang said.