WeChat raises walled garden with launch of mini-programs

Kevin McSpadden
wechat_mini_programs

WeChat’s tool could mark the beginning of the end for third-party app stores in China

If Facebook gave resurgence to the term ‘walled-garden’, China’s WeChat may be perfecting it. In a move the company has been planning for over a year, WeChat launched its new feature called ‘mini-programs’, which the Chinese social media giant hopes will change the game for how users interact with apps.

Mini-programs are light apps built on top of the WeChat interface (called programs because, according to Tencent CEO Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, Apple did not allow WeChat to use the term ‘apps’).

They will be distributed, launched and operated entirely without leaving WeChat.

So how does it work?

In an article for his company China-Channel , WeChat expert Mathew Brennan breaks down what makes WeChat programs a game-changer. Unfortunately, it appears the WeChat updates are not available in Singapore, so we will have to trust the reports from users in China.

The major difference people will point to is there is no external marketplace (however, we will explain later a feature that essentially internalises an app marketplace).

First, users can share QR codes socially, which makes the term ‘going viral’ a lot more lucrative if the actual app (instead of some marketing stunt) is what is being passed around.

Furthermore, because WeChat has built a dynamic relationship with the QR Code, a major means for people to discover programs will be offline. The process takes away few steps from normal offline QR Code marketing, in which scanning the code will bring the user to the app store, where they then download, sign up, test, etc.

Finally, there is a search function in which users can search for a mini-prograe — which honestly performs the same function as a traditional app store, except it is within the WeChat interface.

All of this ‘prograe discovery’ is further streamlined by the fact that it just requires one-tap, and boom! the prograe is running. (According to Brennan, some programs may require a WeChat ID login, far from a serious hurdle).

One of the neat features of the discovery button is it keeps a tab on recently used programs, do if someone is an avid user of Didi Chuxing, the app would theoretically be one of the top programs in the search function.

Also Read: Mini-apps are WeChat’s strategy to connect to the offline world: HuosuMobi Zhao Jiuzhou

For those of us stuck in the stone age, WeChat does allow for users to create a home screen shortcut on a user’s phone. It will look and act like a traditional app button, except that it still works within the WeChat ecosystem.

At the end of December, WeChat had about 846 million monthly active users as of the end of Q3 2016, according to Statistica. The vast majority of those users live in China, so it won’t immediately strike a death-blow to the Apple App store (and the Google Play store has been banned in China for awhile now).

However, for much of the past couple of years, the popularity of chatbots seemed to be a precursor to the death of apps.

WeChat’s mini-programs do not leverage chatbot technology, but maybe that is the point. It adds just enough of a human touch — social sharing, offline advertising and discovery — to be the viable alternative to apps that chatbots have yet to become.

Also Read: WeChat is maturing: use other platforms to drive traffic

What will be fascinating to watch over the coming months is how quickly, and enthusiastically, Chinese consumers shift to the WeChat mini-programs, and how companies across the country adapt.

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Copyright: TEA / 123RF Stock Photo

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