Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Soon you'll be on a Chinese social network


We are all used to living in, and through, social apps and services from the United States. A few of us might have a cluster of cross-European apps too but that's usually it.

Next, make space on your smartphone screens for the best of Chinese social networking.

Shenzhen based Tencent are best known in China for their QQ instant messaging app with 700 million users. Further back in their portfolio is Weixin. Or was, rather, as it has been renamed WeChat in preparation for an international roll-out. The goal is simple; to become China's first global online success.

So far Tencent's roll-out has reached India and Malaysia, followed by Indonesia and crucially Taiwan. The latter market can be seen as a jumping off point for the US thanks to the strong ties between the countries in terms of business as well as population. And if it gets a toe-hold in the US, Europe will likely follow.

WeChat is more than mobile chat however and best described as a combination of messaging service, Skype, Instagram, walkie talkie and basic social networking all rolled in to one. It has been dubbed an iPhone and Android essential by some, and just another addressbook reliant messaging client by others (it does indeed use the entries in your smartphone's addressbook to get you using the service as quickly as possible).

WeChat is not without competitors. When it comes to the iPhone it is fighting Kakao in Korea, LINE in both Japan and Korea (where LINE is ahead of Facebook), and messaging focused Whatsapp in most countries. What it doesn't have is direct competitors, especially not in the Western markets.

WeChat manages this by actually doing everything it does rather well. Instagram is still a better photo sharing app but WeChat's is more than adequate, and contributes heavily to the 100+ million photos that get uploaded to the different Tencent services every day. And with Drift Bottle (think message in a bottle, on your phone) the WeChat team show that they are more concerned with easy to understand and fun ways to get people using their app rather than contrived interaction models. This is not surprising since 50% of Tencent's 10 000 strong staff are said to be working in the company's R&D departments.

By combining adequate and at times fun and engaging functionality with ease of use, WeChat might be on to a winner beyond China. And if so, it'll be on your smartphone too.

wechatapp.com