Message App from China Gaining Wide Acceptance ; beyond Sending Texts, WeChat Connects Users on a Local Social Network

By Century, Adam | International Herald Tribune, November 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Message App from China Gaining Wide Acceptance ; beyond Sending Texts, WeChat Connects Users on a Local Social Network


Century, Adam, International Herald Tribune


WeChat, a mobile messaging application created by Tencent Holdings, the largest Internet company in China, is aggressively trying to buck the trend and to establish itself in the market of smartphone apps.

Chinese Internet companies have long struggled to establish their products beyond the country's borders. In 2007, Baidu, the dominant search engine in China, announced an ambitious plan to break into the Japanese search engine market; as of last year, the company said it had lost more than $108 million trying.

WeChat, a mobile messaging application created by Tencent Holdings, the largest Internet company in China, is aggressively trying to buck the trend and to establish itself in the burgeoning market of global smartphone apps. And some analysts' predictions suggest the company may actually have a shot.

WeChat is most often likened to WhatsApp, a popular smartphone application that allows users to send text, image or audio messages free to other subscribers.

But WhatsApp's Chinese counterpart is quickly moving beyond simple multimedia instant messaging. In the past few months, it has unveiled a steady stream of new features that many say surpass those offered by WhatsApp and Asian competitors like Kakao Talk and LINE.

"I use WeChat for messaging and group chatting, but I've also started getting into its social network," said Kate Wan, a 29-year- old media professional in Beijing, referring to WeChat "Moments," a feature that allows users to post pictures and to update their online status. "It's become a huge part of my daily life."

Ms. Wan is not alone. Since the introduction of the application in January of 2011, WeChat, known as "Weixin" in Chinese, has grown at a blistering pace.

In early September, Pony Ma, Tencent's chief executive, announced that it had doubled to 200 million users from 100 million users in just six months.

Bolstered by China's domestic growth and a market capitalization of more than $50 billion, Tencent is vying to make WeChat the dominant application for global mobile messaging. The app is available in eight languages, including English, Indonesian, Portuguese, Russian and Thai, with plans to expand into other languages.

"The Chinese Internet market is so set apart from other countries that we inside the industry refer to it as the Galapagos Island syndrome," said Kai Lukoff, the editor of TechRice, a China-focused technology blog based in Beijing. "Domestic Internet products are extremely well adapted to the Chinese market, but they are way out of place for global users."

But industry experts argue that app stores like the Apple iTunes Store and Google Play empower developers to reach consumers everywhere. The openness of these distribution platforms could provide WeChat with a conduit into the international smart phone market, some analysts say.

Duncan Clark, the chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm that specializes in China's technology and Internet sectors, said that WeChat, with its sophisticated but easy-to-navigate interface and features, has the potential to overcome any lingering doubts in the West about the so-called made-in-China label.

"Many people are afraid of Chinese products, whether milk, cat food or Internet services," Mr. Clark said. "But with the App Store, it's hard to even know that WeChat is Chinese -- it really levels the playing field."

According to App Annie, a mobile analytics company based in Beijing, WeChat's outward push is beginning to bear fruit.

Based on download metrics from the first three quarters of 2012, the app is growing fastest in Southeast Asia, but it is making headway in other regions, including Eastern Europe and the Middle East. …

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