WeChat is doing things in China no other app in the world is doing right now. It manages to innovate with every update, having added social feeds, games, voice-to-text, and mobile payments since its launch back in 2012. Commendably, WeChat is staying on the cutting edge, transforming the way China communicates for the better.
China’s most popular app, however, is now in danger of simply doing too much at once. WeChat is getting bloated, and despite a recent makeover on Android that cleaned up the interface, there’s only so much clutter a cosmetic redesign can streamline.
Personally, I’m an active but very conservative user of WeChat. I send text and photos and the occasional voice message, but I stay away from the games, most subscription accounts, payments, video chat, and Moments. I have other apps that do most of those things better than WeChat can, so all these extra features just get in my way. And with over 272 million active users, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Perhaps TechCrunch put it best when it wrote in regards to Facebook: “Swiss Army knives don’t cut it on mobile.” While WeChat remains innovative as a mobile platform, it could learn a thing or two from the strategies of its foreign counterparts – namely Facebook and Line – and unbundle.
WeChat is headed toward what Facebook left behind
Facebook went through a slow, rough transition from a desktop website to a mobile app over the past few years. Its mobile adoption just wasn’t keeping pace with competing apps that specialized in tasks that Facebook could perform well, but not perfectly. Fortunately, Facebook eventually realized a full port from desktop to mobile just isn’t realistic – it’s too big and does too much. In Facebook’s latest earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg explained his company’s new strategy: unbundling Facebook into several standalone apps. The decision has yielded mostly positive results so far, as Facebook apps now total almost 950 million monthly active users on mobile, and over half of them using the apps daily.
Facebook Messenger, now an independent app, lags behind competing chat app WhatsApp, but its user-base is growing steadily – up 70 percent in the last quarter (WhatsApp, by the way, has maintained its front-runner position as a pure messaging app). It’s most recent addition, news reader app Paper, was also met with a strong reception. Instagram is separate from Facebook as well, and remains the most popular photo-based social network in the world. Zuckerberg has hinted at spinning off Groups and Events into separate apps too. Not every foray has been a success however, as we’ve seen with Poke, Facebook’s answer to Snapchat.
Line has followed a similar path, compartmentalizing its offerings into integrated but separate apps. Most notably, Line, Line Camera, and many of Line’s casual social games can all be installed independently but accessed from within the main app. Many of them top the download and revenue charts, according to App Annie.
One app to rule them all … until some hobbit kicks your ass
WeChat’s mounting clutter makes sense from a business perspective – adding features into the existing app guarantees a decent conversion rate for your cool new features. But there comes a point when WeChat stops being an app and instead becomes its own sort of unnecessary operating system within the existing operating system.
WeChat also has third-party apps running on top of it, adding to the already-long list of features in the standard version. Tencent CEO Pony Ma indeed admitted WeChat was influenced by Facebook when it created an open platform for external developers, but that was when Facebook was still predominantly a desktop platform. On mobile, this strategy just makes WeChat a cumbersome middle-man.
More nimble and focused startups will eventually capitalize on this lack of efficiency and ease of use, posing long-term threats to WeChat’s dominance. I’m not suggesting they’ll take its place as a messaging app, but newer features and future platforms just won’t be as viable or easily monetized.
WeChat needs to take the cue from Facebook that bundling every feature possible into a single app won’t make people want to use it more. Tencent should spin off payments, games, video chat, and perhaps even the Moments feed into standalone apps. They could still be opened from within the main app, but at least give users the option of not sifting through multiple menus to find what they are looking for. Let them add an icon to their homescreen, instead.
Using an existing app’s captive audience to gain traction on new products is a short-sighted strategy, as this can only lead to bloat. Unless Tencent is planning a WeChat OS, it makes more sense to unbundle it. More screen space spread along several apps, each dedicated to a single purpose, also leaves more room for advertising – if that’s something WeChat wants to do in the future. Best of all, if an idea ultimately fails, Tencent needs not lose face by removing it from WeChat. Instead, its can simply stop working on it and let it fade away.
With a fledging e-commerce branch that’s likely to boom in the next year or two, WeChat is currently in a state of transition. Let’s hope it can learn from its peers before it exhausts its users.
(Editing by Josh Horwitz)