Tencent begins in-app feature for 800 million users, extending WeChat's usefulness

Xiaochengxu will let uses discover and access new mobile apps without ever leaving WeChat, similar to what Facebook provides to game players via its Instant Games.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 7:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 12:21pm

Tencent Holdings, the operator of China’s largest mobile social media network, has rolled out a new in-app downloading feature for WeChat’s nearly 800 million users, extending its uses that already span everything from file sharing and video chatting to ride-hailing and online payments.

The Xiaochengxu (小程序) feature, small apps [mini programmes] in English, will let uses discover and access new mobile applications via the latest HTML5 markup language without ever leaving WeChat, similar to what Facebook provides to game players via its Instant Games.

Users “can simply use WeChat to scan quick respond (QR) codes offline to access certain apps or search the names of an app within WeChat,” the social network’s reclusive creator Zhang Xiaolong said. “When they are done, they can close the in-app pages. There is no need to delete apps.”

Zhang said the feature’s rollout, on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, is a tribute to the Apple Inc’s late founder Steve Jobs. It’s also a page out of Apple’s playbook, which manages an ecosystem where applications are developed, distributed and ranked.

The new feature allows users to get apps without going into app stores. So many industry insiders thought WeChat planned to create its own App Store by launching the new feature.

App stores would certainly help WeChat’s monetisation because stores charge developers by helping to distribution their creations.

Hundred of Chinese developers including Didi Chuxing and Mobike, have already rolled out small app services within WeChat, hoping to get more users by leveraging WeChat’s huge user base.

But zhang said he has no intention of doing that.

Though relatively unknown to the West, WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, has become the most popular daily point of contact by Chinese internet users domestically and around the world since it was launched in 2011.

According to the Shenzhen-based Tencent, about 768 million users use WeChat every day and about half of them spend 90 minutes on WeChat on a daily basis.

Apart from communicating with friends and colleagues, Chinese use WeChat – which effectively works as a combination of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and ApplePay – for a host of actions, from paying their utility bills, to buying movie tickets, and even managing their wealth.

Analysts were mixed in their reaction to the Xiaochengxu launch, however.

The mini programmes feature is likely to firstly replace some apps that are not very frequently used and then move to those apps that are frequently used, but don’t have complicated features
Dong Xu, analyst, Beijing-based internet consultancy Analysys

Dai Bin, region director of Greater China at App Annie, said that WeChat’s mini programmes will never replace traditional apps because they work in two very different “ecosystems”.

“For example, there is no rating system or a unified store for mini programmes and people can hardly become a frequent user of small apps because the feature doesn’t support subscription,” he said.

But Dong Xu, an analyst with Beijing-based internet consultancy Analysys, had the opposite view.

She said because people already have to deal with an overload of information, there is a rising demand to reduce the number of apps they have stored on devices.

“The mini programmes feature is likely to firstly replace some apps that are not very frequently used and then move to those apps that are frequently used, but don’t have complicated features,” she said.

Zhang Xialong, maybe unsurprisingly, envisions the apps market will be “ripe for the picking” in future.

“This [new] feature is designed to help people discover and use apps instantly within WeChat rather than downloading and installing them from app stores,” he said.

A cult figure in China’s internet world, Zhang – who rarely speaks in public – told a December event that with the mini programmes feature, people will no longer need to worry about installing too many apps on their smartphones.

Zhang said he choose January 9 to launch the new feature to pay tribute to Apple, which launched its iconic iPhone on this day ten years ago.

Industry insiders, however, suggested Zhang’s ambition is to revolutionising the app storing system, in which apps can be ranked, distributed and commercialised – a system that was first established by Apple.

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