Right now, there are just a handful of tech companies in the world worth more than US$500 billion. The first Asian tech firm to join that exclusive club? Tencent, putting it among the ranks of Apple, Google and Facebook.
The story of Tencent’s rise goes hand in hand with China’s dramatic internet boom that began in the 1990s: Between 1994 and 1998, the number of web users grew from only 1,600 to more than two million.
At that time, a young man named Pony Ma decided to pounce on the opportunity. He saw that, despite explosive growth, something was missing on the internet in China. While people in the rest of the world were communicating with each other through instant messaging services like AIM, there was nothing like that in his country.
In 1998, Ma quit his job to found Tencent with a few friends. Their first product was the OICQ messenger, a near-replica of Israel’s ICQ -- later renamed QQ.
As expected, QQ spread rapidly in a massive country that was desperate to find an efficient way to connect its 1.3 billion people. As a pioneer, Tencent quickly fortified its dominance in online chat.
Rather than sitting on its early success, a decade later Tencent saw another opening. China’s internet was going through a transformation again -- this time, from desktop to mobile. By 2010, more than half of China’s population was using cell phones -- and nearly 40% of those users were browsing the web with their handsets.
It was clear that Tencent had to evolve, and the answer came in the form of WeChat, an instant messaging app designed for mobile.
Before the arrival of WeChat, people in China were texting each other through SMS, which charges per message. WeChat lets user dispense with their text messaging plan altogether and switch to online data.
But WeChat does much more than just texting. At first, it let users exchange voice messages, or shake their phones to connect with users nearby. Since then it’s grown to encompass almost every part of live in China: Today, people can share photos, order food, call a taxi, pay utility bills, and make a hospital appointment.
Within a year of its launch in 2011, WeChat reached 100 million users. It now has more than 1 billion users.
And if you’re wondering what happened to QQ, it still exists -- on both desktop and mobile -- but now targets mainly younger users.
In China, WeChat is paramount. But outside the country, Tencent is mostly known for gaming.
League of Legends and Clash of Clans are made by California-based Riot Games and Finland’s Supercell -- but both are owned by the Chinese giant. Tencent also has a major stake in Activision Blizzard, the publisher of Call of Duty and Overwatch.
Inside China, Tencent has several original hit titles released through WeChat and QQ. Its most successful game so far is “Honour of Kings”, a mobile MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena). Since its launch in 2015, the blockbuster has attracted over 200 million gamers. It’s so popular that a couple even named their newborn after the game.
Like other smaller game companies in China, Tencent is also quick to clone games that haven’t been released in the country. It’s created mobile games that look very similar to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, before releasing the official licensed versions.
But that’s not all. Tencent is already a music streaming heavyweight in China, running the country’s three most popular services: QQ Music, Kugou Music and Kuwo Music.
It’s also the sole online distributor of the big three western music labels: Universal Music, Sony Music, and Warner Music. Local rivals who wish to stream songs from those labels have to pay Tencent for the rights.
And it looks like Tencent’s music ambition isn’t limited to inside China. This year, it launched its first music label -- Liquid State -- in partnership with Sony Music. Focusing on electronic dance music, it’s already planned exclusive collaborations with Alan Walker -- the top-selling DJ behind platinum hit “Faded”. Three Asian mega-pop stars have been enlisted as ambassadors in their respective homebase, including Seungri from South Korean boy band Big Bang.