The rise of China’s super app: WeChat at 10

Now ten years old, WeChat and its creator Allen Zhang have been through a lot. It’s not always been easy, but today the app is crucial to everything that goes on online in the most connected country in the world.

By LU Keyan


Had Allen Zhang gone out for a game of pool that night eleven years ago instead of sitting down to write his boss an email about a new messaging app, his life today would have been quite different.

Now, more than a billion people use WeChat to gossip, buy things, play games and watch funny videos every day. At the annual WeChat review on January 19, Zhang couldn’t stop talking about the app's new short video feature, Channels, which he sees as of prime importance for the next decade.

Fox meets penguin

Zhang was famous before Tencent founder Pony Ma. While Ma was working on pagers, Zhang had come up with Foxmail, China’s star email system. Zhang was something of a rockstar among programmers in southern China.

Cut to 2005, when Zhang and a team of 20 joined Tencent with its acquisition of Foxmail. At that time, Tencent instant messenger QQ and MSN were locked in a life-or-death struggle for the Chinese market. Tencent bought Foxmail to expand its mailbox business. The Chinese game company Shanda acquired Sina and Tencent started to hunt for quality services to pack into QQ.

With the rise of the “Penguin' Empire" named after QQ's multipurpose animated penguin logo, no one imagined that it would be anything other than QQ that would go on to rule Chinese chat.

In 2010, thousands of group-purchase websites came into being, including Meituan Dianping, an online delivery and ticketing service platform which is now the fourth biggest company on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Microblogging became a big deal and the 140-character limit for posts transformed people's social thinking. LEI Jun started Xiami, which is now big enough to threaten both Tencent and Huawei.

Video streaming website iQIYI and online cosmetics seller Jumei Youpin also made their debuts that year, as well as many names that have already quite the scene. The sweet smell of lucre filled the air. In October, a Canadian messaging app called Kik appeared and people could suddenly chat on their mobiles for free. Kik attracted one million users in less than two weeks, but not many in China, which was still chasing the penguin, fixated on QQ.

A father is born

One of the few Chinese people who noticed Kik was Zhang, father-to-be of WeChat. By now the cumbersome QQ Mail dominated the industry, but Kik’s minimalist style captured the heart of the Steve Jobs fanboy. Then came the gateway to the legend when Zhang forewent his game of pool to send an e-mail to Pony, suggesting Tencent “work out” something like Kik.

To combine with a couple of his QQ team, Zhang hired fresh graduates to form a team of six or seven, and two months later the text-only WeChat version 1.0 was ready for testing. It was not a commercial success. Back then, SMS were all but free and no one saw the point in free text chat, but when WeChat added picture sharing and voice calls, the fire was lit.

Voice messaging was the rock upon which the WeChat colossus was raised. Born in January, one member of the team said that unless they were full-grown by May, they might be dead and buried by August.

With smartphones came location-based social services (LBS). What really gave WeChat its edge was the ability to chat with strangers, a function that, on reflection, seems almost alien in the context of China’s social media world back then. While competitors were still playing around in friendship groups, WeChat scooped 100,000 new users per day with "People Nearby," "Shake,” and "Drift Bottle (a feature that allowed users to find pen pals via leaving a note to a random stranger).” Striking up conversations with strangers quickly populated slightly empty contact lists. For an app with less than a million users, 100,000 new users a day was a very big deal indeed.

Less than a month after "Shake" shook up the market, WeChat had 100 million users. When Zhang speaks of its success, he always mentions the “lock and load” sounds that accompany the shake. It was chosen because it sounds, Zhang believes, particularly sexy, and sex is the most common driving force for people. Zhang is into exploring human nature.

He learned a lot from Kevin Kelly's Out of Control and The Mob by Gustave Le Bon. He asked WeChat managers to read The Descent of Woman to understand female users. Zhang loves rock music and believes his managers should also be fans: "Rock and roll is anti-establishment, but pro-humanity and pro-freedom. It helps people regain their natural states."

WeChat has a distinct philosophy: Zhang’s philosophy. His app does not have push notifications nor does it call users nin, an honorific in Chinese, simply because he doesn’t like these things. He banned "message delivered" and "message read" notifications very early, for the same reason. His personal quirk is now one of WeChat’s best-loved features.

Zhang was not the only man of vision. At Xiaomi, Lei Jun also noticed Kik, almost at the same time. He launched a similar product, Mi Talk, before WeChat. It was competitive, simple and pleasing to the eye. It not only had all the WeChat functions, but arrived first. At that time, some felt that WeChat was just a knock-off Mi Talk. There is even a slightly disturbing similarity between the two product names.

China Telecom joined up with NetEase to create chatting app Yixin with all the telecom operator's unique resources. At the product launch, NetEase CEO DING Lei said, "Tencent must be anxious."

But Tencent was not. WeChat quickly saw off all comers. Mi Talk grew so fast that it ignored the importance of the underlying technology and lost tens of millions of users. Yixin was just as constrained by the limits of China Telecom as it was liberated. On January 19, days before WeChat's tenth birthday, Xiaomi said Mi Talk will be shut down for good from February 19.

Zhang was more concerned with competition from inside Tencent. In the wireless business division, two teams working on an identical product. The three teams lived in the same hotel but did not communicate with each other and the atmosphere was tense. The wireless business unit had developed QQ and was not intimidated by WeChat. At that time, Tencent's cash cow was telecom value-added business under the wireless business unit, in tandem with telecom operators. Free instant messaging was tantamount to declaring war on telecom companies.

WeChat had no qualms about taking in the telecom powers, supported, to some extent, by Pony Ma and it was perhaps Ma’s support that made WeChat so resilient to in-house pressure. As another minimalist, Pony gave Zhang great freedom.

Money makes the WeWorld go around

Many regard the addition of the QQ relationship chain as the decisive factor in the early success of WeChat, a view not shared by numerous founding WeChat employees. They attribute WeChat Moments as being the key step for the app, converting strangers to acquaintances.

In 2012, WeChat version 4.0 came out and Moments was officially launched. A simple communication app became a private social platform. WeChat has also opened an interface to third-party applications via Moments.

WeChat is not really an original product in a full sense. Moments owes a lot to Facebook and Path. "Shake" first appeared on a social network called Bump, and the inspiration for voice calls came from TalkBox. But WeChat made these functions brilliant. Moments was designed to let users see the interactions of mutual friends and lead to multi-person discussions.

Just as Moments was born, Diandi, Shanju, Shenliao, and a series of LBS-based social applications bit the dust. Then mobile internet and WeChat began to run wild, driven by WeChat's official account platform. At the outset, WeChat didn't expect too much from it beyond allowing celebrities to post pictures, texts and audios to attract fans' attention. It wasn't until a bunch of grassroots entrepreneurs and media professionals piled in that WeChat realized that this might be a big deal. Weibo’s 140-character limit could not meet the needs of many users, but official accounts with long graphics and text most certainly did.

WeChat Pay was launched in 2013. Initially, this was merely a product for a rainy day. Tencent's e-commerce business was weak and WeChat Pay could not face down Alipay. At the beginning of 2014, Didi, the future big dog of ride-sharing, allowing customers to pay via WeChat and not long after, Tencent designed a red envelope application to exploit the Chinese tradition of giving money to family and friends as a gift at the Spring Festival.

The red packet design is simple and caters perfectly to Chinese tastes. From lunar New Year's Eve to the eighth day of the first lunar month, more than 8 million people received about 40 million yuan via red packets, each containing an average of 10 yuan. Within a few months, activity on WeChat group chats increased three or four times.

The conflict between Tencent and Alibaba entered a fierce stage. Alibaba launched Laiwang to "send the penguins back to Antarctica," and soon after, a mobile game platform. The tacit power distribution was in the past and war was inevitable.

From 2011 through to 2015, WeChat gained 100 million users each year. Caijing Magazine reported that 120 projects within Tencent were queuing for access to WeChat. But WeChat is patient and may take several months to open an interface.

Externally, the WeChat portal is excellent for Tencent’s investment targets. In the past few years, Tencent has invested in, Vipshop, Didi, Mobike, Tongcheng Yilong, and other companies. When Mobike signed up in early 2017, it added 24 million new users in one month. Tongcheng Yilong's 2018 Q3 financial report showed that 81 percent of all users and 94 percent of paying users came from WeChat.

In 2014, Tencent bought a stake in 

BOCOM International calculated the value of a WeChat portal as US$2 billion. Pinduoduo's 2018 prospectus valued its portals at $2.8 billion. Pinduoduo founder HUANG Zheng admits that creating a sharing scene on WeChat was the reason for the early rise of his company.

But now Allen Zhang was criticized for his obsession with traffic. After WeChat Pay, there were no impressive new features for a long time. Mini programs arrived in 2017: games, e-commerce, community operations and mini-stores all sprang from it. WeChat quickly moved from the social scene to the business scene.

Daily active users of mini programs reached 400 million in 2020 and the gross merchandise value doubled to approach 1.6 trillion yuan. The project has completed its mission.

Ten more years

WeChat is a traffic giga-highway, but Zhang's judgment is not always correct. In 2019, he introduced "Time Capsule": videos shared for 24 hours only. Two years later, it is still not a big hit and its failure to take its place in the short-video field gave rise to doubts.

In 2020, when short-video sharing became a hit and WeChat launched its own version, Channels. Less than half a year later, monthly active users of the new feature exceeded 200 million. Zhang revealed that in the early days, pure machine-based recommendations didn't work out. When WeChat turned to the “social” recommendations user data immediately skyrocketed.

Channels' has indeed grown rapidly, but as a product dwelling in the WeChat ecosystem, 200 million is not a dazzling figure.

WeChat's coverage is so wide that any signs of trouble can easily knock on into controversy. There are many similar user complaints: group messages are difficult to completely block, dialog boxes and chat records are deleted together, and even the upper limit of favorite emojis is a cause for complaint.

Four years ago, ZHANG Zhidong, former Chief Technology Officer at Tencent, pointed out that WeChat held big moves for a long time and was always eager to create features that would surprise the whole industry. "Short-term, low-tech functions are not given high priority and are put off due to other tasks."

he also believes that WeChat is beginning to face overload problems, and its tags and permissions are still "not elegant enough." The pressure of communication overload needs to be reviewed. WeChat seems to have a hard time making a trade-off between information overload and user experience.

However, it seems that WeChat is still hungry for change. Allen Zhang has just announced several new WeChat features: a "bomb" emoji, a status search and a music upgrade. In his words, these products may not be very mature, but they are fun. It seems that 120 million people want to "tickle" their friends.

Zhang's face may be animated when it came to the new functions, but it remains to be seen whether such a basically simple messaging app will continue to surprise users in the 10 years to come.