25 Feb

What’s at Stake in WeChat’s Mini Programs?

Post written by Shan, Influence Matters Senior Executive, Strategy and Account Management

Jan. 9th, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the first iPhone and also a significant day for Zhang Xiaolong, the mastermind behind WeChat and Senior Vice President of the Chinese internet giant Tencent, when he announced the launch of ‘Mini Programs’ on the cloud-based application platform embedded in WeChat. Unlike Android or iOS apps, a mini program requires practically zero installation on your phone while capable of performing the same basic tasks of an app. All it takes is a scan of the QR code or searching the exact name of a mini program (fuzzy search is not supported) and you can easily share them with your friends by sending a message on WeChat.

With over 800 million and increasing monthly active users in China and abroad on the ‘super app’ WeChat, it is no wonder that the launch of mini programs created a huge buzz, especially among the IT professionals. The application scenarios of WeChat have been therefore expanded as the mini programs can now perform tasks such as food-ordering, taxi-hailing and ticket-booking, etc. that previously required dedicated native apps. Like it or not, the mini programs have the potentials to alter the ecosystem of the online service providers as well as smartphone users’ habits in the future.

On the launch day alone, hundreds of mini programs went online almost simultaneously. On one hand, companies that developed those mini programs are concerned that the mini programs would inevitably lower the usage rate of their native apps and they are worried about the potential risks of becoming too dependent to the tech giant. On the other hand, they are eager to gain initiatives over their competitors.  Given today’s fiercely competitive IT industry in China, if these companies do not act fast, someone else will always fill the gap.

This paradoxical mindset gives rise to the real question: will WeChat’s mini programs ultimately replace all existing apps and become the only apps on our mobile devices?

Well, probably not all of them, at least for now. Some apps will be replaced by mini programs without doubt. For example, the apps for ticket-booking and O2O home cleaning service which have low use frequency and the apps with high use frequency but are relatively simple in terms of features, such as utility tools including weather apps and parcel tracking apps, etc. However, it might not be the case for complex apps such as large-size games, professional apps or social apps (since the mini programs currently do not support user-to-user interactions). The four quadrants below better illustrate the borderline of current mini programs and native apps:In the early days of internet and smartphones, there had been debates around whether choosing web apps or native apps and the latter ones obviously became the mainstream in the recent years. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once tried to promote web apps in the hope to break the duopoly of Android and iOS apps but failed. Now, Tencent might just be able to do that in the Chinese market with its gigantic user base and its mini programs that are similar to web apps.

Nevertheless, Tencent’s ambition goes far beyond resetting the rules for the app markets. As Ma Huateng, founder and CEO of Tencent, explained in 2014, the company’s ultimate goal is to “connect everything”, which can be interpreted as breaking down the barriers between the online and offline worlds, therefore connecting the people to the services and real-life objects. The launch of the mini programs is considered just one of these steps in achieving the ultimate goal.

It also explains the reason why there will not be any rankings, recommendations or even an “app-store” for the mini programs since the only thing that matters is the actual real-life scenario. The hope is that, by scanning the QR code on every object and in every scenario, the virtual world behind them that provides information and services will be within our instant reach.

Despite that WeChat’s team didn’t specifically associate the mini programs with VR, AR and other wearables which are believed to be the next generation of mobile devices, the idea itself is mind blowing and catches people’s imagination. The approach and the notion of designing and developing future apps is likely to be vastly different from today as what you “get” will be what you ”see”.

For users, the mini programs provide a more efficient alternative to acquire information and services under the right circumstances. For developers and businesses, the mini programs shorten the development cycles, lower the costs and the technical barriers. For Tencent, the mini programs can be critical to secure their leading industry position in the years to come and should not be underestimated in the long term.

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