Think of all the things you can do with your smartphone today. Whether it’s booking a train ticket, finding a hotel, paying bills, messaging a friend, sharing photos, ordering food, and so much more, almost all of these things happen in separate apps -- but in China, you can do all of this inside a single one: WeChat.
WeChat is both an app and so much more than that. It somehow combines Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Uber, Venmo, and even the App Store itself in one little package.
WeChat is so powerful that China is the one place where people are more likely to freely switch between iOS and Android. In the rest of the world, it’s hard to switch between the two because you’re locked into the ecosystem of apps and services exclusive to each platform. In China, you don’t have that problem: Everything is inside WeChat, and WeChat is the same whether you’re using an iPhone or a Xiaomi handset.
SWISS ARMY KNIFE
WeChat, known as Weixin in China, was the brainchild of Allen Zhang, a programmer whose startup was bought by Tencent. Back then, Tencent already had a successful desktop instant messaging service called QQ, but was looking to build something different for the growing number of smartphone users. Zhang and his small team won an internal shoot-out between two competing ideas inside Tencent, and their product was released in 2011 as WeChat.
So how do you navigate an app that does everything? When you open the app, there are four main tabs at the bottom: Chats, Contacts, Discover and and Me. The first two are for instant messaging -- but it’s the last two that make WeChat special.
Under the Discover tab, there is an Instagram-like feature called Moments that lets you share photos with your friends. “Shake” allows you to jiggle your phone to find new friends nearby -- sort of like Tinder with a twist. You can also use it to identify a song that’s playing around you, just like Shazam.
Then there are Mini Programs. Introduced last year, think of them as tiny apps inside WeChat -- yes, apps within an app. And this is what makes WeChat so useful, because it allows it to do virtually anything: Didi Chuxing has a Mini Program to call a cab, Mobike has one to rent a bicycle, Ctrip lets you book your travels, and Meituan helps you order dinner or buy a movie ticket.
And that’s just what it can do now. Any developer can build a Mini Program, so any future hit app, service or trend can quickly be added to WeChat.
The simplicity and integration means apps can soar in popularity very quickly: An addictive Mini Game called Tiao Yi Tiao (Jump Jump) reached 100 million daily active users within a month of its launch.
Believe it or not, all of that -- the Instagram-like Moments, friend-finding Shake, and the infinite possibilities of Mini Programs -- is all under just one of WeChat’s four main tabs. The final tab, Me, contains a Wallet that links to your bank account so you can shop online, order food, donate to charity and buy insurance. But it also allows you to pay for things in the real world: Mobile payments are everywhere in China, from restaurants to street vendors, and the vast majority of them accept WeChat Pay.
BIG DATA, BIG QUESTIONS
But as more people turn to the app, there are questions about how the company handles all the data it collects. WeChat denies that it’s using it for commercial purposes, though as people become more aware of data privacy issues, Tencent could face tougher scrutiny.
Censorship is another concern. WeChat regularly filters out messages containing words or even images deemed sensitive by authorities in Beijing. Terms related to Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the banned religious group Falun Gong are known to be blocked. But unlike the Great Firewall, which only applies to people connecting to the internet from inside China, experts claim that WeChat continues to censor Chinese users wherever they are in the world -- as long as their account was originally registered to a phone number in China.
But as the app grows, as it continues to gain more and more functionality, it’s hard to see anything stopping WeChat’s continued rise. The app has become so ubiquitous that there’s even a proposal to use it as a virtual ID. A pilot trial is already underway in Tencent’s home province of Guangdong to use WeChat as an electronic social security card.