Facebook Messenger. WhatsApp. Viber. Skype. There are already plenty of mobile-messaging systems you can use to keep in touch with family and friends. But soon you might be getting familiar with another, especially if you live in Asia: WeChat.
Developed by China’s largest listed Internet company Tencent, WeChat — known as Weixin in China — has all the basic features of a mobile-messaging app, with users chatting by text or voice and making video calls. But uniquely, there are functions that allow you to speak to a group of friends (turning your phone into a walkie-talkie) and to chat one-on-one using quick audio snippets instead of text — extremely useful when you’re too distracted to concentrate on writing an SMS, or if you’re writing in Chinese characters, which takes longer using a standard alphabet.
“It’s fun using WeChat,” said Wei Ziwei, a 23-year-old living in Chongqing, a city in China’s southwestern region. “Being able to give a voice to your messages makes them so much more interesting.”
Other rich features include an abundance of emoticons that can be sent when the right words just can’t be found (you can also make your own emoticons using photos you’ve taken yourself). There’s a social-media aspect to the app too, allowing you to post your photos, and share interests and locations, on a page that’s similar to a Facebook profile. And if you want a shot at love or just the chance of a new friendship, WeChat has a few options: the Shake function pairs users up with others who are looking to meet new people; the Drift feature sends a message to a random user; and the Look Around function lets users find other people in the vicinity who are using WeChat. Think Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Skype and the Tinder dating app wrapped into one.
WeChat was launched in January 2011 and has grown exponentially in China in the absence of major competitors (Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, with its own messenger app, is blocked by the Great Firewall, as is Twitter). Today, the service has some 400 million subscribers, and Tencent, based in the booming southern city of Shenzhen, is looking to expand to other parts of Asia, where it has already notched up 50 million users in markets like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and India. The U.N. launched its official WeChat account last week, days before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began his visit to China on Tuesday.
Analysts say it’ll be tough for the app to compete on a global level, pointing out that the marketplace is already crowded. “No one wants to leave a platform where all their friends are hanging out just to go to a place that has the same experience,” says Jay Oatway, a social-business consultant based in Hong Kong. “But if everyone decides to move together to try something exciting and new, then a new platform can usurp an old one.”
Besides WeChat, two other Asian-based platforms are vying to offer that new experience. Line, a cross-platform communication service and app from NHN Japan — the Japanese arm of South Korean search giant Naver — boasts 160 million users worldwide and offers a social-messaging platform with free calls and messages, games and “stickers” (similar to emoticons). The website Tech in Asia notes that Line has grown faster than ever, adding 50 million users in a little more than three months. There’s also KakaoTalk, based just south of Seoul, with 90 million registered users (nearly 4 million of them in the U.S. and a steadily growing user base of 15 million in Japan).
Both of WeChat’s rivals have been making smart moves. KakaoTalk launched a social-gaming platform for its users in Indonesia and Vietnam in early May, and has allowed third-party game developers to create Indonesian- and Vietnamese-language versions of their gaming titles. Meanwhile, Line has found a promising income stream in sticker sales. Each sticker costs about $2, and according to thenextweb.com, make up 30% of Line’s revenues, which stand at just over $17 million.
Tencent is sure to be considering similar income streams for its currently unmonetized WeChat. Alicia Yap, an analyst with Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, said in a May research note that the management’s tone during a conference call to announce first-quarter results suggested monetization would “likely occur very soon” via micropayments associated with mobile games. On Tuesday, WeChat also started to roll out a merchant-payment service for users of Tencent’s TenPay system (similar to PayPal), with McDonald’s becoming the first vendor to sign up.
While Tencent figures out how to turn WeChat into a cash cow, the social-messaging app continues to chase that elusive “freshness and a momentum,” as Oatway puts it, that will win over more users in other countries. “If enough of your friends decide that WeChat is the new cool,” he says, “then that’s where you will move your online presence.” With Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram trying to keep up, it looks like staying in touch will soon become a full-time job.
— With reporting by Yue Wang