On Jan 9, concurrent with CES in Las Vegas, China’s Wechat — with 840 million active users — launched its Mini Programs, embedded apps that require no download or install. [Technically, Mini Apps would have been a more apt term, but rumor has it that Apple banned Wechat from using that term.]
THIS IS HUGE NEWS; and it’s sending shivers across the Pacific to Google, Apple and Facebook alike. Imagine: when you no longer need to download and install the apps you rarely use, and you can access all of their services through a single all-powerful app whenever you need them, how much time would you save? how clean would your home screen look like? Would the very concept of an app-filled smartphone have to be redefined because of this? Wechat’s latest move could potentially spell the demise of App Store. And for those not familiar with Tencent, Wechat’s parent company valued at USD 240 billion, Mini Programs is just the first step of a much bigger game Tencent is inviting the world to play.
As an avid user of Wechat and keen observer of China’s tech landscape, I’m attempting to explain why the launch of Mini Programs is significant.
The Great Wall of Wechat
With Mini Programs, users no longer need to go to App Store to download and install apps before using their functions. Users can access these apps within a new panel inside Wechat, near where the equivalent of Facebook’s newsfeed is.
On Android phones, Wechat mini programs can even spawn homescreen icons that look exactly like regular apps.
Like Facebook, Wechat is trying to monopolize more users’ time beyond social interaction: Why download a full app for such temporary services, if you only order delivery or uber a couple times a day/week? Then why not provide lite versions of these apps that don’t hog storage nor homescreen real estate?
It could turn WeChat’s app into a sort of operating system within an operating system, a one-stop app that users would rarely have to leave to use other mobile apps — WSJ
Wechat believes that you will access more services within Wechat, and you will like it, designing its own Great Wall-ed garden to keep you inside for as long as possible.
Driving Services vs. Content
Individuals and enterprises have two major ways to interact with their users on Wechat — through Service Accounts (服务号) or Subscription Accounts (订阅号) (both are called official public accounts). People can argue all day about the minute distinctions between the two; I’m boiling them down to the following:
Wechat noticed the flourishing of subscription and service accounts alike, with many auxiliary businesses sprouting up to form a healthy eco-system.
However, compared to Subscription Accounts, Service Accounts seem to lag behind in user engagement. Wechat has bet big on Service Accounts because they remain important to Tencent’s B2B ambitions. So, in order to step up the user engagement and service quality of the Service Accounts. Wechat introduced Mini Programs.
Connect to EVERYTHING
What can Mini Programs do that Service Accounts are unable/slow to accomplish? It’s to become more connected to the real world.
Users only need to pull up the appropriate app when they are in the right real-world setting. Use as you go. No download/install fuss. Does it sound familiar to you? Google’s Instant Apps is aiming to do the same thing, except that it still hasn’t been launched!
In one of his public lectures, Wechat founder, Allen Zhang used two examples of Mini Programs:
- When you are at a bus stop, you can scan the QR code attached to the stop and learn the ETA of the nearest bus.
- At a long-haul bus stop, you can scan the QR code attached to your bus line, purchase your bus ticket right there, and skip the ticket line all together.
This connection to the real world has become an increasingly important pillar of Tencent’s vision: connect people to people, people to services, people to businesses, and people to objects.
Wechat has undoubtedly put into reality the connection of the first three kinds. But connecting people and objects is yet to be fully realized.
We’ve seen several ways how companies are connecting objects to devices such as chip embedding and IOT technologies OR augmenting reality with AI/object recognition and virtual interaction.
Most of these methods end up creating constraints on the hardware, but China has popularized a different means to connect people to objects — QR Code.
The QR code is already ubiquitous in China. People are used to scan QR codes to pay vendors, view advertisements, access all sorts of services. It will take little effort/cost to put on QR codes on more service-relevant objects. Scan a table to know the brand and price, scan a passing bus to know its route, or scan a road sign to get directions. China is dominating Internet trends in its own ways. Here the QR code is becoming the hyperlink between the real world and the digital world.
Behind each QR code is a specific piece of information or service, and Wechat is deploying mini programs to access these services efficiently. Mini programs could be a gateway for Wechat to make QR codes even more ubiquitous, and the connection to real world even stronger.
Real Target: Offline and Social
There’s a counter-intuitive — but surely intentional — feature about mini programs: users cannot share mini programs onto their Moments (Newsfeed) or access the programs by recognizing their QR codes saved on the phone.
Instead, users can only access mini programs in the following 3 ways：
- scan printed QR codes in the real world
- precise search (not fuzzy search)
- share directly in chats
The first point clearly shows that Wechat is imposing an artificial suppression of online to online traffic. When online to online traffic is artificially blocked, traffic from offline will gain an advantage. Wechat is forcing the hand of product developers and service providers to focus on driving offline traffic, revealing its ambition to go OFFLINE.
The last point then aims at unlocking the business potential of Wechat’s social power, especially that of vertical communities in the form of group chats.
Let’s look at both points separately.
Unlock the Offline Potential
Consider the amount of time our eyes are glued to our phones everyday. Let’s say it’s 2 hours out of 16 waking hours. Let’s assume that 3/4 of the 2 hours are given to social apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Wechat in China’s case. So, the other 50 something apps on your phone will have to compete for 30 minutes of your time per day. That gives each app on average 36 seconds per day.
A new app that manages to emerge from App Store fierce competition and end up on our homescreens will unfortunately get very little of our attention. For an service/app developer, the odds are not looking good.
Realizing that it’s becoming harder for businesses to compete for online traffic, Wechat takes a step back and asks, “But wait a minute, what about the rest of the 14 waking hours when we are not staring at screens?!”
In those hours, we are in specific business contexts: eating in a restaurant, arriving at the airport, or checking into a hotel. In these contexts, our time is not monopolized by our phones, but Wechat is saying it has the potential to be.
When arriving at the airport, for example, you are presented with an airline specific QR code, through which you can get on a check-in mini program and complete the process instantly. This check-in app then successfully carves out a portion of the time you are previously exclusively giving to a real-world business context. The probability of you using the app in this particular context is much higher than in other contexts. AND compared to the heaps of cash spent on improving the App Store ranking, the cost of this user acquisition is MINIMAL: just a printed QR code on the right offline spot.
Boom! There are countless offline contexts like this, and Wechat is encouraging users and developers alike to unlock their potential.
Unlock the Social Potential
Wechat recognizes that group chats are highly valuable business contexts, where vertical communities congregate, where recommendations and pitches are made between friends, and where services can be immediately exchanged.
Say a group of friends are talking about traveling together in a group chat. The typical service route goes like this: a group leader has to be selected to gather opinions and find consensus, download a travel app to do research and make the booking (back and forth many times), and separately summarize the booking back to the group.
But with Mini Programs, the new service route goes like this: someone pulls in a travel mini program into the chat, people then simultaneous research and comment, until a consensus is reached, and in the same mini program, people can respectively make their booking.
Mini programs shorten the service route between users and services, by STAYING WITHIN THE WECHAT INTERFACE. That means user acquisition and conversion will happen faster and more frequently in the social contexts. Imagine the business potential! [Facebook’s business chatbots are surely trying to unlock the same potential.]
Mini Programs: A Sneak Peak into the Future
One can argue that Mini Programs are yet another wall built by Tencent to further protect Wechat’s social empire. But this is not by any measure revealing and should always be assumed for most tech companies.
Wechat Mini Programs are giving us a glimpse of how we can interact with the next generation of products and services. They should be:
- Based on specific offline contexts, where user acquisition costs can be lower, utilization rate/user stickiness can be higher.
- Based on social/vertical communities, where service routes can be shortened, and transaction frequency can be raised.
With or without Mini Programs, Wechat is going full force in this direction. As a user, for one, I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop.