WeChat Explained – Understanding the Chinese Super App

WeChat as a rapidly growing platform from China, which is also gaining in importance worldwide

Understanding the Super-App from China that is used by over 1 Billion users every day. We give you an introduction to WeChat and explain what is behind the app.

The biggest competition for the iPhone is not Android, Samsung & Co. or China’s manufacturers of cheap smartphones. It could be a simple idea: Apps packaged into a single application instead of having dozens of different apps spread across the screen. WeChat is China’s leading social media platform, has done just that, and has the potential to revolutionize the smartphone world the way the iPhone did back in the day.

Who would have thought that WeChat, which was launched in 2011 by Chinese tech giant Tencent, could make such waves? With more than a billion monthly active users (as of 2021), it has become an integral part of life in China and an influential platform worldwide – all through their concept of everything being integrated into one app, with no media breaks and no need to leave the app.

WeChat calls this concept “mini programs” and the idea behind it is that users can access handy features from 3rd-parties – photo filters, translators, cabs, payment services, and more. – within just a single app. The advantage is that these features are available instantly, no downloading or installing required. It sounds like a small innovation, but it solves two big problems in the app industry.

History of WeChat

WeChat, or “Weixin” as it is known in China, started as a simple messaging platform and then rapidly evolved. Tencent was inspired by the popularity of WhatsApp and other messaging apps and wanted to develop an app that offered multiple forms of communication – text, voice, video, and group chats. Over the years, however, WeChat has evolved into a “super app” with a wide range of features that go far beyond messaging and now combines all the functionalities that are usually only available by using dozens of different apps.

The technology behind WeChat

The genius of WeChat lies in its design and extensive list of features. The user interface is intuitive and makes navigating through the different sections pretty seamless. One key feature is “Moments,” a timeline-like interface where users can share updates, photos, and articles, similar to Facebook’s newsfeed, but it can be seen more like a feed of different apps converging.

Arguably, WeChat’s most important feature is “WeChat Pay,” a digital wallet that allows users to easily make mobile payments and money transfers. The ubiquity of WeChat Pay has made cashless transactions the norm in China, from buying groceries to paying utility bills. Since the user only needs to register 1x in the app which also centrally stores the payment function, it is easy for other apps to access it. So you can do online shopping, buy new features, go out to eat or just send money to friends without having to deposit new credit cards every time, PayPal registration, or other things. Since functions like authentication, payment, API connections, and more work automatically, users only need to have one account and never need multiple logins, never need to deposit billing addresses or credit cards again.

The WeChat platform also works for companies through “Official Accounts”, allowing them to interact with their followers. This feature essentially turns WeChat into a marketing tool, creates a direct channel between brands and consumers, and also enables easy sales of products, services, or digital offerings (the “mini-programs”) through the WeChat platform.

For many companies and startups, the “mini-programs” have become an ecosystem all their own to get to customers and sell quickly. These are sub-applications within WeChat that offer various services such as e-commerce, ride hailing, and food delivery, reducing the need for separate apps.

Understanding problems with today’s apps

To understand why WeChat is so successful, we should also understand what problems apps have today. All of today’s apps are getting bigger and “heavier.” Developers are putting more and more features and media into the apps to make it prettier and better designed for the hardware. In theory, this wouldn’t be a problem if you had unlimited storage on your smartphone or unlimited data. But since the majority of active smartphones are mostly of an older age (which means 2+ years in the technology world) and therefore have less memory and processing power, this is a problem for most people internationally.

However, every user knows the second problem himself. Registering apps, entering data, opening accounts, and filling them with data can be tedious. Everywhere, these are needed first before you can use the app effectively. This not only leads to the problem that this much data is inconvenient to type on the small screen, but also lead to the fact that you may have to enter the data in public places to use an app, which can be a security risk.

The “solution” – mini-programs

The “mini-progams,” on the other hand, are undetectable in the App Store. Users get links via social media, friends, groups, QR codes, etc. Since the programs are loaded via the cloud, there is no need to download the program itself. Since the programs also use the services like WeChat Wallet, there is also no need to enter the personal data as well as the payment functions. In Android, these “mini programs” can also be placed on the home screen and work like all other apps, only without the hassle of logging in again, re-entering data, etc.

Usage in China

WeChat is practically indispensable in China and part of everyday life. It is used not only for personal communication, but also for professional collaboration. Many companies use WeChat groups for internal communication, project updates, and even document sharing. A Chinese user gets up in the morning using the app and probably won’t close the app until the evening.

Commercial transactions are simplified through WeChat, with e-commerce companies using Mini Programs and WeChat Pay to provide a seamless shopping experience. Public services are also accessible through WeChat, such as booking medical appointments and paying fines, or even giving money to beggars, for example. The use of WeChat Pay and Ali Pay is now standard, and there are many Chinese who have not held a single coin or paper currency for years.

WeChat has also made great strides around the world, especially in the Chinese diaspora who use it to stay in touch with friends and family back home, and as a result the community is growing internationally. However, it has not yet been able to compete there against existing platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.

What can WeChat do?

Users can use a whole range of services, all of which are combined in the app. From simple chats that replace WhatsApp, to interaction with authorities, combined with social media functions that are otherwise offered by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, etc., to online stores and payment apps. The app is a complete ecosystem that offers everything to one user that would otherwise require dozens of apps. It’s a “one-stop” app for everything, and you don’t even have to leave the app.

An example of how a WeChat user spends their day

A typical day of a WeChat user according to the WeChat study would look like this:

WeChat Explained - Understanding the Chinese Super App 1

Another simple example would be like this – A customer can get a restaurant recommended on WeChat. Starts a group chat with his colleagues, reserves a table at the restaurant, orders the drinks before he arrives so that they are already at the table, orders the food at the restaurant, shares a picture of it on his Timeline, pays with the click of a button, rates the restaurant online and his colleagues transfer him their share of the bill.

All this works without him having to leave a single, the app.

Criticism of WeChat

Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, its success and popularity, WeChat is often criticized. The main points of criticism are data protection and security. Due to the sheer size and also the data sovereignty of WeChat, it is possible to completely screen a user from morning to night and create a “perfect persona”. To what extent the app has access to all user data is unclear, and whether this data is shared with the Chinese government is also unclear.

Additionally, WeChat’s censorship policy is another issue, especially in Western circles. Reportedly, certain keywords and topics are filtered or blocked, which is in line with China’s strict Internet regulation policy, and Tencent, the manufacturer, is apparently being heavily monitored by the Chinese government.

Prospects of WeChat and super apps.

Looking more closely, WeChat is almost like a mobile operating system. As it becomes more powerful and comprehensive, Chinese customers will increasingly think about which system WeChat works best on. Whether it should be iOS, Android or another system then becomes secondary. It only has to offer the best system to run WeChat as quickly as possible, and that has a major impact on the industry in the long term. Thus, WeChat’s supremacy will probably not be broken in China, either, and companies like Google and Apple have a difficult time, because their ecosystem seems to be poorly positioned in comparison.

That is exactly why giants like Facebook (WhatsApp), Google, Apple are also dealing with this principle and want to push it in the Western world. However, the path is a long one, it seems, but Elon Musk has also taken the first essential step with the purchase of Twitter and the vision of “X”.

Benjamin Talin, a serial entrepreneur since the age of 13, is the founder and CEO of MoreThanDigital, a global initiative providing access to topics of the future. As an influential keynote speaker, he shares insights on innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship, and has advised governments, EU commissions, and ministries on education, innovation, economic development, and digitalization. With over 400 publications, 200 international keynotes, and numerous awards, Benjamin is dedicated to changing the status quo through technology and innovation. #bethechange Stay tuned for MoreThanDigital Insights - Coming soon!

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