Android or iOS first? It’s a choice every mobile developer must make when embarking on a new project. But in China these days, a third option is emerging: WeChat.
With nearly 400 million active users, Tencent’s flagship messaging app offers an exciting new avenue for developers taking aim at the Chinese market. Breaking into that ecosystem, however, might not be as simple as it first seems.
In the latest batch of nine startups that graduated from the country’s premier accelerator program, Chinaccelerator, two companies operate as service accounts inside WeChat: Chishen.ma and GiftPass. The former is a “story driven” restaurant recommendation app, and the latter allows users to gift vouchers within the chat app that can be exchanged for real life goods.
GiftPass co-founder Vincent Mah say he chose WeChat because “we wanted to lower the barrier of entry as much as possible” for users.
“If we compare to native apps, then Wechat puts a lot of restrictions on what can be done on their platform. But they do it to ensure WeChat users get a good experience,” Ma says. “With 400 million active WeChat users, getting access to them outweighs any cons.”
Compared to other social networks, Mah agrees that Tencent has a relatively ‘closed’ ecosystem, “but they are open just enough for us to find creative ways to make it useful,” he says. “It is their platform. They can do whatever they want.”
Chishen.ma founder Ryan Shuken says, “Users are increasingly spending more time within WeChat, time that’s taken away from other native apps. We are positioning ourselves in front of this trend.”
“Instead of reinventing the wheel and creating yet another social platform, we’re leveraging the tools made available by what’s already China’s hottest social network,” Shuken explains. “WeChat’s API is very new, so while its initial launch was relatively limited in functionality compared to some of the other social platforms, it’s been constantly opening up new features in the past few months.”
Mah says GiftPass plans to release its own native apps in the future, but Shuken didn’t mention any such plans for the time being for Chishen.ma. Startups like these are more and more eager to engage the WeChat audience. That gives Tencent the privilege of being picky with who it lets in or out, and is a far cry from competing social networks like Renren and Sina Weibo.
More particular than its peers
Renren and Weibo, often considered China’s equivalents to Facebook and Twitter, have both been on a gradual decline as WeChat surges in popularity. Still, many foreign startups use these domestic social networks as stepping stones when entering the Chinese market.
Beggars can’t be choosers, and the two companies seem ready and willing to partner with whomever they can get to integrate their products. News reader app Flipboard brought them both on board in 2012. Photo gallery app Cooliris integrated Sina Weibo in December last year and Renren a year before that. Personal QR code generator Visualead sealed a deal with Renren to allow any user to link to his or her account using a picture transformed into a QR code last May.
And while each of these companies expressed strong interest in WeChat as a future potential platform, none of them have managed to get on board. Integrating existing apps like these seems to be a much less viable option as opposed to building an app in the form of a WeChat service account. “We’re in talks with Tencent,” or “We’re working on it and it’s on the way,” were common responses when Tech in Asia pressed the issue.
“I wish we had it today,” said Flipboard head of business development Eric Alexander at a press event in Beijing. “It’s at the top of our priority list.”
Cooliris has even integrated with Tencent Weibo and QQ Zone, both under Tencent’s social wing, but WeChat remains elusive. Cooliris CEO Soujanya Bhumkar argues other social networks aren’t apt comparisons, and WeChat should instead be compared to other chat apps like Line and WhatsApp.
“For a fairer comparison, I would compare WeChat with other messaging apps, and the Tencent/WeChat ecosystem is just as open or closed as the other messaging apps around the world,” he says.
Visualead uses QR codes, which are used extensively by both Alibaba and Tencent in their ecommerce and O2O strategies. The startup’s VP of marketing, Oded Israeli, says this makes them more cautious of announcing plans and advancements too early.
“In my opinion, those companies who remember the innovation that made them successful and continue to reinvent themselves will be the ones that will be successful in the long run,” he says.
Game developers get even tougher conditions from Tencent. If you want to develop a game for WeChat, it must be exclusive to WeChat. That could be a tough deal to swallow. But to be fair, all Line games are also exclusive, and Line doesn’t even offer an official open API.
Risks and rewards
So it seems like creating an app that functions as a WeChat service account is the easier, although more limited, approach. It could also be more risky, however. In June, WeChat wiped out thousands of service and subscription accounts in one fell swoop. And while most of these were spam or violate some other terms set by Tencent, the company seems much less discerning in its banishments than, say, Apple or Google.
Last month, Tencent put an end to a chat bot made by Microsoft. “Xiaobing,” as she was named, could be invited into group chats where she could intelligently respond to dialogue. After accusations arose that said Xiaobing was spamming users and invading their privacy, Tencent promptly “massacred” her, to use Microsoft’s rather dramatic phrasing.
Still, WeChat’s API is free to use, making it an enticing avenue for those not afraid of banishment, and that doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. The chat app can be an excellent starting point to penetrate the Chinese market.
Mobile voice search developer Mobvoi made a name for itself with a service account that functions much like Siri does on an iPhone. Send it a voice message, and it will return relevant results within WeChat for restaurants, bars, shopping, navigation, weather, tourism, and transportation. Mobvoi went WeChat-first, and later made an Android app (which remains less popular). The startup secured a US$10 million investment led by SIG in February.
Open for business
One of Tencent’s more recent moves to open up is focused squarely on ecommerce. As of late May, anyone can set up their own store inside WeChat. The move is aimed directly at Tencent’s biggest pound-for-pound competitor in the country, ecommerce titan Alibaba.
Tencent added support for mobile payments in August last year, but only had a few retailers on board. Now, those with official verified accounts and that are qualified to use Weixin Payments can set up a store, much like many businesses have done on Alibaba’s Taobao. Existing online retailers and ecommerce sites can also open up WeChat shops.
Even before shopfronts were opened up to the public, businesses were using WeChat in a more informal way to sell their stuff. A group of college students even set up a local fresh fruit delivery service, taking orders and handling customers via WeChat. Tencent’s encouragement shows that it sees the revenue potential in ecommerce, and that it’s one of the only companies in China big enough to put up a fight against Alibaba.
Earlier this month, WeChat launched a new API specifically for smart devices. The first official batch of gadgets included a handful of activity-tracking wristbands that let users track their personal data through WeChat official accounts, but they weren’t the first to combine hardware and WeChat.
Welomo, a startup that makes physical photo printers, was the first hardware company to be exclusively integrated into WeChat. Tencent persuaded the company to ditch its native apps, a decision the founders later attributed to their ultimate success. Businesses can buy a Welomo printer to be placed inside their shop. Users can subscribe to the official Welomo WeChat account, choose a photo from their album, then input the four-digit code on the Welomo printer into the chat. Out pops a real photo.
The new WeChat API opens up even more possibilites to connected hardware makers like Welomo. Tencent is pushing adoption to gain an edge on its many competitors, like Alibaba’s Alink, Baidu’s cloud platform, and JD’s smart home protocol. But Welomo founder Chance Jiang says it has no plans to deviate from its WeChat strategy.
“Alibaba and Baidu both have their strengths too, of course. Baidu is more about hard technology and search. Alibaba has built a network of buyers and sellers. But Tencent has all the people. It’s like Facebook,” Jiang says.
WeChat has been around since early 2011, but Tencent really only started opening up its ecosystem when version 5.0 was released in August 2013. WeChat v5.0 was the first to allow payments and games. Now less than a year later, it’s already growing as a viable platform on which to build a business.
Perhaps it isn’t as open as developers would like, but it’s still more accessible than both Line and WhatsApp. As WeChat slowly opens up to the world, no developer that wants to break into China should write it off as too closed to consider.
This article was originally published in our Insights e-magazine.