Journalist Adam Century recently wrote about Weixin in the venerable pages of The New York Times. It’s high time for WeChat to start getting international attention.
The story, Chinese Messaging App Gains Ground Elsewhere, is a sharp overview of the WeChat phenomenon.
I’d like to supplement it with a few additional points:
“WeChat is most often likened to WhatsApp, a smartphone application popular in the United States that allows users to send text, image or audio messages for free to other subscribers. But WhatsApp’s Chinese counterpart is quickly moving beyond simple multimedia instant-messaging. In the last few months, it has announced a steady stream of new features that many say surpass those offered by WhatsApp and Asian competitors like Kakao Talk and LINE.”
Features matter. But it’s a mistake to try and ‘out-feature’ the competition. Although it’s the most popular IM app worldwide, WhatsApp is far from the most feature-rich. But it is damn reliable, has a clean UI, and, most importantly, benefits from network effects.
Like with Facebook in social networking, I believe this is a winner-take-all market: a mobile messaging app becomes more valuable as more of your friends join. No one wants to message alone.
WeChat is aggressively marketing to establish network effects in new markets. It wants to be that winner.
2) It’s About Distribution, Not Anonymity
“But industry experts now argue that app retailers like the Apple iTunes Store and Google Play empower developers anywhere to reach consumers everywhere. The openness of these distribution platforms could provide WeChat with a conduit into the international smartphone market, some analysts say.
Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm that specializes in China’s technology and Internet sectors, said WeChat, with its sophisticated but easy-to-navigate interface and features, had the potential to overcome any lingering doubts in the West over the 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.’”
Correct, the rise of the app store is a major win for Chinese developers. But it’s really a minor factor that app stores hide the “Made-in-China” label. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog anyway. There’s no mention of WeChat’s Chinese origins on its English-language website: www.wechatapp.com/en It’s not about anonymity.
What does matter is that the app store makes global distribution much easier. Before, it was as if each developer had to build their own store or navigate a bewildering array of resellers. The customs, rules, regulations, and resellers were different for almost each of the 196 countries on the globe.
Those national boundaries remain for traditional entertainment industries like movies, music, and books. But they’ve been smashed when it comes to mobile apps.
Now it’s dead simple: release your app on the Apple App Store and Google Play and you have ~75% of global smartphone users covered (Android in China is one big hole–hello Wandoujia!).
With the rise of global app stores, quality of the product suddenly matters much more than your distribution channels. That’s a win for Chinese companies outside of China. (Inside of China, that’s another story… they’ll fight such a globalized system tooth-and-nail).
3) Not Yet an International Success
I’m bullish on WeChat’s chances in the global market, but let’s not be premature. International downloads are still less than 5% of WeChat’s daily downloads, say industry sources.
Nor are the current US numbers anything to celebrate: “Analysts say WeChat registered nearly 100,000 new users in the United States in September alone.” On a yearly basis (1.2 million app downloads), that’s still a distant cry from the numbers WeChat will need to make an impact in the US beyond the limited population of Chinese-Americans.
One thing that is worth celebrating: it’s not everyday that a Chinese product hits The New York Times without any mention of melamine, national security concerns, or a corruption scandal. Go WeChat.
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