WeChat head Allen Zhang enjoys rock star fandom but all eyes are on next act for China’s everyday app

  • Zhang is a legendary figure in China’s internet circles and is widely credited as being the ‘Father of WeChat’
  • WeChat is at a significant crossroads as Tencent seeks to move focus to industrial internet
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 11:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2019, 5:11pm

When the first speaker took the stage at the Poly World Trade Expo centre in Guangzhou on Wednesday morning for Tencent Holdings’ annual WeChat conference for developers and partners, there was an audible sigh of disappointment. The reason: it was not Allen Zhang Xiaolong.

“I can see the disappointment in your eyes,” said Du Jiahui, WeChat executive for open platforms, as he commenced the two-day conference.

Zhang is a legendary figure in China’s internet circles and is widely credited as being the “Father of WeChat”, the messaging service that has morphed into a super app with more than a million lite-apps to rival the Apple and Android app stores.

Just how much of a rock star is he? There were touts offering tickets to the evening session where Zhang would speak. And when the 49-year-old did take to the stage at about a quarter to eight, the audience of thousands got to their feet, cheered wildly and whipped out their phones to snap their idol.

Dressed in a grey hoodie and jeans, Zhang explained why he had kept his audience waiting. He likes speaking in the evening when he feels more energetic, and it is easier to overrun. “You may all know that I’m not good at public speaking,” he told the crowd.

He then went on to speak for hours in one of his longest public speeches ever. The audience was made up mostly of developers and content creators like Qu Yangchao, who makes a living running self-media accounts on WeChat.

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“He’s a true inspiration. I’m here just to see Zhang in person,” said Qu, who travelled from Hunan Province, pointing enthusiastically to the stage. “He influenced a whole generation of internet users with WeChat, and it’s a platform that truly respects its users and content creators like us.”

Speaking slowly in slightly accented Mandarin, Zhang announced that the ubiquitous app reached 1 billion daily active users in August, a major milestone for WeChat as well as for China’s internet industry. He also said the team would step up its efforts to build an ecosystem of mini-programs that have enabled WeChat to become a do-everything super app.

Mini-programs, which are applications smaller than 10 megabytes that can run instantly on WeChat’s interface, now connect WeChat’s 1 billion users to more than 200 industries, and have logged 100 billion transactions for government and business services, according to Tencent earlier on Wednesday.

However, the eight-year-old WeChat is at a significant cross-roads. As the flagship social networking product of Tencent, its mission is central to the well-being of the Shenzhen-based internet conglomerate, which still derives more than half of its revenue from gaming.

That business is now under intense regulatory scrutiny as China’s government reins back the industry to protect the mental and physical well-being of the country’s young. It is also facing intense competition from challengers such as Beijing-based Bytedance, owner of the hugely popular short video app Tik Tok and news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.

In the latest major update for WeChat last month, Zhang’s team introduced Time Capsule, an Instagram Story-like function that allows users to record a short video that will disappear after 24 hours. “Videos will replace pictures in future communication because they convey more information,” said Zhang.

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Chinese search engine giant Baidu, e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba Group Holding as well as Jinri Toutiao have all rolled out mini program offerings in the wake of WeChat.

Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

“We are happy to see a lot of companies developing mini programs,” said Zhang, adding that WeChat will not treat Tencent’s investee companies differently from others in the ecosystem.

Among the mini apps, games are one of the biggest categories and monetisation opportunities for WeChat.

“Revenue derived from mini games has gone beyond our expectations,” said Zhang. “It is commercially successful but personally I am not happy that the number of original games is small.”

As the head of QQ Mail Mobile in 2010, Zhang led a team with fewer than 10 members to develop the first version of WeChat in less than 70 days, beating out two other internal teams working on the same project.

As far back as 2011, Martin Lau Chi-ping, president of Tencent, referred to WeChat as a “strategically important platform for Tencent because it will help to sustain and evolve our social leadership from PC to newer mobile devices”.

Now, all eyes are on whether Zhang can successfully squeeze more profit from the 1 billion users of WeChat and extend the firm’s smartphone-based leadership to the industrial internet and fast-developing era of connected cars.

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Earlier on Wednesday, Tencent announced that WeChat will launch a Siri-like voice assistant named Xiaowei that will be available across its different businesses.

The assistant will link WeChat users with Tencent’s stable of services including QQ Music. Meituan Dianping, Didi Chuxing and Mobike, three on-demand services providers that all count Tencent as a strategic investor, will also connect with Xiaowei.

Johnson Zhang, a Beijing-based WeChat service provider that develops mini programs for various industries and a loyal attendee of the annual event, said Tencent’s accumulation of users will be crucial to the shift in direction.

“Capabilities such as Xiaowei, WeChat and cloud computing will be Tencent’s edge in moving into the enterprise-facing business.”