How everyone in China came to rely on one app

Jan 03, 2019

Most times WeChat is mentioned in western media, it's called the Facebook of China, or the WhatsApp of China. Facebook and WhatsApp aren't very similar, but that's exactly why the parallels drawn seem confusing—WeChat is a huge, seemingly all-encompassing app, and some 900 million users can't get through a day without opening the app once.

WeChat, or Weixin as it’s known in China, is used for basic functions like chatting (WhatsApp), sharing pictures to a timeline (Facebook)—but beyond that, you can also play games, shop (kind of like Shopify), subscribe to news in an aggregator (like Flipboard), pay friends (Venmo), pay in stores and restaurants, book a cab (Uber), book a doctor's appointment, or even arrange a time slot to file for divorce at the relevant government office.

The app was launched in January 2011 after its maker, Tencent, spent about a year in development. The first version of WeChat only allowed users to send text messages and photos. The launch received little response from users, because other messengers were already out in the market.

Five months later, the app started allowing people to exchange voice messages. The app started adding 60,000 new users a day, up from the previous 10,000 prior to the voice feature.

Voice messaging started it all.

“The voice message [function] turned senior businesspeople who weren’t used to typing on smartphones into our WeChat users,” Ma recalled in a speech in Tsinghua in 2016.

Later, WeChat added features allowing users to discover other strangers, and chat with people nearby. (This one was added in 2011, way before the days of Tinder.) 

By March 2012, WeChat had exceeded 100 million registered user accounts—just over a year after launch.

Paying for a cab ride with WeChat.
Paying for a cab ride with WeChat.

In 2014, Tencent started marketing its virtual money feature as a way to conveniently send a buck to a friend. This started with Lunar New Year gifts of money, which later evolved to convenient bill splitting.

Today, the mobile payment scene has moved way beyond sending cash to a friend. Together with Alibaba's Alipay, WeChat Wallet has all but replaced the physical wallet, allowing people to pay for expensive items at physical stores. People pay for their utilities online with the apps, and even borrow money on credit with Alibaba and Tencent. (Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post, which runs Goldthread.)

Mini programs are the next frontier

And you can expect the scope of applications allowed in WeChat to keep widening, thanks to last year's release of its "mini programs" feature. The app allows other companies to offer "lite" versions of their apps within WeChat, so users don't need to download individual apps onto their phones—imagine booking a cab without having to download and login to Uber.

Playing a mini program game.
Playing a mini program game. / Photo: Shutterstock

For WeChat, the value proposition is obvious: mini programs are aimed at driving customer loyalty, or stickiness, within its app.

In about a year, developers have made a million mini programs, and 600 million people already use them.

This story was adapted from an original article first posted by the South China Morning Post.

Mini programsMobile paymentsTencentWeChat