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WeChat's Mini Programs Take Aim at Traditional Apps

Service may upend app usage

January 10, 2017 | Mobile

On Monday, Tencent's messaging app WeChat launched its new "miniprogram" feature, called Xioachengxu in Chinese. The service, built on the open HTML5 standard, allows WeChat's 768 million users to access miniprograms instantaneously, without having to leave WeChat to navigate to an app store, download or install anything.

Top 10 Social Media/Communication Apps Among Android Users in China, Ranked by Reach, Sep 26-Oct 2, 2016 (% reach)

(While WeChat officially refers to the service as "miniprograms," citing a request from Apple not to use the word "app," the service is widely referred to as "miniapps" by local media and others.)

Here's how a miniprogram might work. A user who needs a ride scans a QR code to open a taxi-hailing service's miniprogram within WeChat, calls for a private cab, pays for it and then closes the app with a couple of taps. If necessary, the user's ID is verified through the WeChat ID. All this can be done without the user ever leaving WeChat or installing the service's full-featured app. There's no need to visit an app store, and since nothing was downloaded there's nothing to delete.

Publishers, for their part, can decide how much functionality they import to WeChat miniprograms from their native iOS and Android app versions. So far most have launched miniprograms lacking the full range of services offered by their native iOS and Android apps. These are generally less taxing on a mobile device's resources as a result.

Because they operate wholly within WeChat, miniprograms can disrupt the existing model of app distribution in China by letting users bypass traditional app stores completely. WeChat has designed miniprograms to be "device-neutral," meaning they are designed to function just the same regardless of whether a user is on an iPhone or an Android device.

There is no centralized store for miniprograms—they're intended primarily to be shared socially within chats. WeChat users can also access them by scanning a QR code or by searching within WeChat. While WeChat has not yet asked for a slice of miniprogram revenues, that could change if they gain significant traction among users.

—Rahul Chadha


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