Chinese Messaging App Gains Ground Elsewhere

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BEIJING -- Chinese Internet companies have long struggled to establish their products beyond the country's borders. In 2007 China's dominant search engine, Baidu, 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, China's largest Internet company, is aggressively trying to buck the trend and establish itself in the expanding global market for smartphone apps. Based on some analysts' predictions, the company may actually have a shot.

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.

"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 update their online status. "It's become a huge part of my daily life."

Since the introduction of the application in January 2011, WeChat, known as Weixin in Chinese, has grown at a blistering pace. In September, Pony Ma, Tencent's chief executive, announced that its user base had doubled to 200 million from 100 million in six months.

Tencent is vying to make WeChat the dominant global mobile messaging application. The app is available in eight languages, including Russian, Indonesian, Portuguese and Thai, and there are 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 Galápagos 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 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."

According to App Annie, a mobile analytics company based in Beijing, WeChat's outward push is beginning to bear fruit. Based on download data from the first three quarters of 2012, the app is growing fastest in Southeast Asia, but it is making headway elsewhere, including Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The most promising markets this year include Vietnam, Turkey, Thailand, India and Indonesia, with Russia and Saudi Arabia following closely behind.

While WeChat remains relatively obscure in the United States, where players like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger dominate the mobile messaging market, analysts say WeChat registered nearly 100,000 new users in the United States in September alone.

"All of my Chinese friends use it here in North Carolina, whether to send group messages or to organize events," said Zhang Xue, a student at Duke University Law School who is from the city of Harbin in China's northeast. "I downloaded WhatsApp out of curiosity, but it's not nearly as convenient as WeChat."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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