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WeChat: The future of mobile internet

News, 31 August 2016

LONDON: WeChat, a Chinese mobile messaging service, "is the best example yet of how China is shaping the future of the mobile internet for consumers everywhere", according to The Economist.

"The app offers everything from free video calls and instant group chats to news updates and easy sharing of large multimedia files," the publication observes. "It has a business-oriented chat service akin to America's Slack."

So ingrained has the mobile service become that "People who divide their time between China and the West complain that leaving WeChat behind is akin to stepping back in time".

One of the most impressive advantages of WeChat, the weekly publication continues, is its delivery on "the promise of a cashless economy, a recurring dream of the internet age."

Subscribers to the service can spend an entire day without putting cash on the table or serving up a credit card.

"That is only fitting," The Economist adds, "for China makes and puts to good use more smartphones than any other country. More Chinese reach the internet via their mobiles than do so in America, Brazil and Indonesia combined. Many leapt from the pre-web era straight to the mobile internet, skipping the personal computer altogether.

"About half of all sales over the internet in China take place via mobile phones, against roughly a third of total sales in America. In other words, the conditions were all there for WeChat to take wing: new technologies, business models built around mobile phones, and above all, customers eager to experiment."

The five-year-old offering was developed by Tencent, a Chinese online-gaming and social-media firm, which reports WeChat usage of more than 700m people. More than half of WeChat's audience has already linked their bank cards to the app.

"In contrast," the Economist observes, "Western products such as Snapchat and WhatsApp have yet to persuade consumers to entrust them with their financial details. Japan's Line (which recently floated shares on the New York and Tokyo stock exchanges) and South Korea's KakaoTalk (in which Tencent is a big investor) have done better, but they cannot match the Chinese platform…."

"In America messaging apps had a potent competitor in the form of basic mobile-phone plans, which bundled in SMS messaging. But text messages were costly in China, so consumers eagerly adopted the free messaging app. And e-mail never took off on the mainland the way it has around the world, mainly because the internet came late; that left an opening for messaging apps."

Data sourced from The Economist; additional content by Warc staff