News from Chris Skinner, The Finanser
So I was delighted to see that Steven Millward wrote a great piece on Tech in Asia about WeChat the other day. The fact is that WeChat and WeChat Pay in China is a monster but, to go global, they will have more challenges as Ant Financial has got the key partners first. In other words, imho, Ant has first mover advantage. Mind you, that has not stopped WeChat from competing effectively before, as evidenced in this timeline article from Steven.
WeChat was born seven years ago. Here’s a potted history of China’s most essential app.
October 2010: In development
In a Tencent office in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, away from the company’s Shenzhen HQ, a small team started working on a mobile chat app.
January 21, 2011: Tencent debuts messaging app
It began quietly on this day seven years ago when Tencent – already China’s social media giant with its MSN-style QQ instant messenger and accompanying Qzone social network (with 780 million active users at the start of 2011) – made a mobile-only messaging app. It was a big break from Tencent’s very PC-era social networks and online gaming empire.
Here’s how it looked at launch, initially only on iOS:
Image credit: The Next Web
The new app was called Weixin in Chinese. There was no English name yet. The Next Web, the only major international news outlet to report the launch, transliterated the Chinese name and dubbed it “micro letters.”
China’s three telecoms companies already had online messaging apps that were proving popular, but Tencent wanted to bring down the telco barriers that existed between people. Screw the telcos: its chat app would disrupted SMS and work on any phone and mobile service.
The launch of Weixin came as Kik and WhatsApp – both released in 2010 – were gaining traction.
WeChat’s first iteration had basic features: text messaging, creating voice clips, and, sending photos.
August 2011: Adds video clips
Anyone familiar with the dizzying array of features in Tencent’s other products would have guessed that WeChat would not stay on minimalist mode for long.
Seven months after launching, WeChat added video clips and a “find nearby users” function.
With Chinese people slowly shifting from 2G to 3G, WeChat ensured that videos would be shrunk down to reduce the cost of sending them when not on wifi. A one-minute video could be condensed so that it was just 1 MB in size.
March 2012: Hits 100 million registered users
About 14 months after launching, WeChat hit a major milestone when Tencent reported it had 100 million registered users. This was before the company started revealing the number of monthly active users.
April 2012: Weixin becomes WeChat
After a year of Tech in Asia calling the app Weixin, Tencent picked an English name for it.
The move seemed to signal that the Chinese tech titan wanted to go global with its newest social network, something that the company had never done before.
Later that month, WeChat’s v4.0 update added in the Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Portuguese languages. It already had English.
June 2012: Chatting up India
Tencent pushed WeChat into India with a high-profile, celebrity-filled launch – including lots of pricey ads on Facebook. Of course, one of its ads referenced Bollywood.
The timing seemed great, as India was just about to join in the smartphone boom that was already sweeping China. But, as we now know, India’s social media addicts love Facebook and WhatsApp instead.
It was the first of many overseas fails for WeChat.
July 2012: Voice and video calls appear
The new features kept on coming.
July 2012: Alibaba tries to kill off WeChat
Seeing WeChat as an eventual threat to its ecommerce empire, Alibaba launched a WeChat-esque social app of its own.
It didn’t take off.
But Jack Ma was right to be worried about WeChat as Tencent’s wunderkid app later ventured into online shopping, in-store payments, and a number of other areas that treaded on Alibaba’s toes.
Summer of 2012: Brands invade WeChat as QR codes swamp China
By the summer of 2012, a new trend was emerging: QR codes. QR codes everywhere. They’re very evident in China to this day.
Tencent opened up WeChat to brand accounts, prompting Chinese companies and foreign brands doing business in China to leap on board, keen to interact with China’s consumers in an arena that’s more direct and intimate than the nation’s other hot social network, the Twitter-esque Weibo.
Media outlets and celebrities also rushed to get their own WeChat public accounts.
To get people to add and follow a brand account, a company could display its personalised QR code anywhere and encourage shoppers to scan it. This is how QR codes became ubiquitous in China.
September 2012: Syncs with Facebook and Twitter
By now, WeChat has animated emoji as well as downloadable sticker packs. The app also allowed users outside China to connect their Facebook and Twitter accounts in order to find more buddies to add into the messaging app.
Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China.
The move showed that while some features were largely limited to the Chinese market – like the brand accounts – Tencent was still aiming at global expansion with a slimmed-down version of WeChat.
September 2012: Hits 200 million registered users
Its userbase doubled in the space of six months.
Late 2012: Backlash begins
WEChat had gotten so big that stories of terrible things happening through the app start to make national news in China. A woman was reportedly ambushed and murdered when a man who was stalking her using WeChat’s “people nearby” feature attempted to rob her.
That feature is switched off by default.
A few months after that attack, WeChat was implicated in the trial of a sexual predator who used the same location-based function to befriend and “groom” 160 boys, some aged under 13, who were living nearby.
December 2012: BlackBerry debut
Back when BlackBerry was still clinging on to relevance, Tencent came out with WeChat for BlackBerry. It made sense as part of its expansion into new markets with lots of young phone users where BlackBerry was still hip, like Indonesia and several countries across the Middle East.
A version for the doomed BB10 came later, in July 2013.
January 2013: WeChat caught censoring users around the world
WeChat entered the global limelight in the worst possible way when it was seen censoring users around the world who entered certain politically sensitive phrases into the app.
First reported by Tech in Asia, the development caused an international backlash against the app. It highlighted growing concerns of Chinese companies “exporting censorship” as they expanded overseas.
January 2013: 300 million registered users
The app reached 300 million devotees a few days after its second birthday.
February 2013: WeChat whacks Weibo
By now, it’s clear that WeChat had become huge and was threatening to surpass Weibo as China’s favorite social app, thanks to some help from its Facebook-esque Moments section.
Charles Chao, CEO of Weibo parent company Sina, conceded to investors that users were spending less time on Weibo.
February 2013: Hollywood glam
This was another threat to Weibo, which capitalized on the appeal of interacting in real time with big-name users. Stars such as Selena Gomez, John Cusack, Maggie Q, Paris Hilton, and the Backstreet Boys signed up to WeChat so as to engage with Chinese fans.
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