WeChat founder Allen Zhang had some praise to offer Apple yesterday — on the 10th anniversary of the release of the iPhone — just as he was laying down a challenge to the dominance of the application market that Apple has enjoyed over the last decade or so.
To celebrate the anniversary, Zhang posted 2007 iPhone launch photos — just as WeChat’s parent company Tencent was rolling out a new suite of web apps for smart phones users.
“Tencent was conveying that they want to play a leading role in the next decade,” said Jia Mo, an analyst at Canalys.
Though that role will be hard fought, as Tencent is stepping into the ring with some of the biggest — and richest — corporations on Earth. It’s a big challenge.
But WeChat has climbed big mountains before, having gone from being a relatively simple chat app to being something of a digital commerce “Swiss Army Knife” that also now allows users to pay bills, order cabs, read news, do their banking and buy movie tickets. And it’s brought those capacities to a massive audience — 846 million uses at last count.
The new apps function is called Mini Program. These apps are cloud-based — meaning users can access them without downloading them.
Apple did not respond to requests for a comment — Google did respond, with the words “no thanks.” Apple’s iOS accounted for 17 percent of smartphones sold in China in the third quarter of 2016, versus Android’s 82.6 percent, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Asia. Apple said last week that sales of its apps in China rose 90 percent in 2016.
Tencent does not consider the new collection of cloud-based apps to be an app store — and has actually dropped the word “App Accounts” since Apple wouldn’t let them use that. However, as Tencent Chairman Pony Ma wrote on his WeChat account in September, that might have been a good thing that forced them to differentiate their offering some — by calling it Mini Program, among other things.
Dong Xu, an analyst at research firm Analysys, said these mini apps are suitable for functions used frequently that are not terribly complex.
“Any tool should help the user increase efficiency,” Mr. Zhang said in a speech last month. “That is the goal of a tool, the mission of a tool.”
But whether these tools will be robust enough remains to be seen.
“For heavy users, the experience on apps is still better, so I don’t think this would threaten the status of app stores,” said Zhu Xiaohua, product supervisor of online question-and-answer platform Fenda.
“Mini Program is not a simple substitute,” said Hong Bo, a Beijing-based tech analyst. “It will take a fairly long time for developers and users to get used to it.”