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The next phase of WeChat

Thousands of people gathered Wednesday night in a southern Chinese city for Zhang Xiaolong, Tencents low-key executive who built WeChat eight years ago. Its no longer adequate to call the app a messenger, for it now enables myriads of functions that infiltrate Chinese peoples private and public lives.
It wasnt just the tech circles tuning into the event. Civil servants, real-estate agents, salon owners, fruit vendors, teachers, artists anyone who use WeChat to facilitate daily work watched attentively for news and tips that came out of the annual conference.
Zhang, nickname Allen, is by nature a hardcore product manager. He went to great lengths during his 4-hour speech telling people productivity is WeChats holy grail, and that he wants to make user sessions short and efficient. He called out apps obsessed with keeping users on, which many may agree include ByteDances video app TikTok and news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.
The next phase of WeChat

Thats a tough sell, though, for WeChat is anything but a disposable tool. The app now boasts over 1 billion daily users. 750 million of them open WeChat Moments, a scrolling feed of friends updates, each day during which they check it more than 10 times.User growth is cooling, but thats expected given the super apps enormous base.In addition to being a social network, the juggernaut has also devised a host of new features that may generate more eyeball time and help it maintain meaningful growth.

An app universe


Two years ago, WeChat made a move that would speed up its evolution from a simple app into an all-in-one platform. It rolled out so-called mini programs, which are stripped-down versions of native apps with only core features in exchange for smaller size and quicker access. To date, there are over 1 million such lite-appsand 200 million people access them every day, an achievement that inspired other tech giants to follow suit.
Zhang said from the outset that mini apps werent meant to replace regular apps, for the latter provide a more complete user journey. In effect, mini apps are getting more powerful as they further integrate with chats and gain new capabilities, such as an upcoming Siri-like voice assistant.Mini programs are also making inroads into the offline world, facilitating transactions like scan-to-pay at subway turnstiles, all without the fuss of app downloads.
Theres no mini-program store at the moment, but a less conspicuous infrastructure is taking shape. Users can already look mini apps up on WeChats internal search engine and may soon be able to rate them, according to Zhang. WeChat will in turn factor those reviews into search results, akin to how the App Store works.

The public space


Whether mini programs threaten the existing app ecosystem is disputed, but one thing is certain: They have a strong appeal to those without the capacity or need to build full-size apps, like a teacher who wants a tool to broadcast announcements to parents. There may be only a few dozen users, so a lightweight, easy-to-build app makes more economic sense.
The next phase of WeChat
WeChats annual company conference in Guangzhou, China. Photo: Tencent
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