WeChat (微信), a popular mobile messaging application developed by China's Internet giant Tencent, dramatically expanded its user base to 300 million worldwide by January 15, just a week before its second anniversary.
Industry insiders estimated that the number of users of WeChat, which offers multimedia communication flexibility and convenience with text messaging, voice messaging, photo sharing as well as many other social networking services, might hit the 500-million subscriber mark by the end of 2013, surpassing the number of users of Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like microblogging service that has reportedly amassed 424 million users by the third quarter of 2012.
"I use WeChat to send text and voice messages to my friends and chat with them in group. The application has become a part of my life," said Kate Wan, a 29-year-old media person based in Beijing, adding that she chose Moments, a WeChat social networking service used for photo sharing and updating of moods, as a way to enter the social network space.
WeChat is becoming popular among international users. Photo: Techcircle.vccircle.com
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the number of text messages sent via mobile phones grew by just 2.1 percent to 897.31 billion in China last year, as the increasing popularity of mobile chat applications, especially WeChat, is nibbling the market of the Chinese telecom operators.
"The figures from the MIIT mean that the age of sending text messages via mobile phone is coming to an end. The social networking applications, especially WeChat, will be the trend," said Zhang Yi, CEO of Internet consultancy iiMedia Research.
Apart from the multimedia communication flexibility and convenience provided by WeChat, the cost of using the application to send a message, which involves low network usage, is much less than sending it from a mobile phone.
"Chinese telecom carriers will inevitably see negative growth in text messaging business in 2013," said telecom expert Fu Liang, stressing that the popularity of WeChat and other mobile messaging applications are eating into the pie of the telecom operators.
Last year, WeChat for the first time became a major channel for viewer-organizer interaction and information collection in China Central Television's (CCTV) "3.15 Evening Gala" (3.15晚会) on March 15, the World Consumer Rights Day.
The short message businesses of telecom operators, however, will not be completely and rapidly eroded by the craze for WeChat in the short term, because telecom carriers are considering providing cheaper text messaging packages and have adapted text messaging for commercial promotion, mobile phone business handling and online booking confirmation.
Being available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian and BlackBerry OS platforms, WeChat, after its wild popularity in the mainland China, is harboring high ambitions at the global stage. WeChat now has more than 10 million overseas users, Tencent said in a statement.
Tech in Asia, a website that provides Asian tech news worldwide, recently released a heat map that was prepared by Value2020, showing the chat application's global expansion.
A heat map shows WeChat’s global expansion. Photo: Value2020
The heat map indicates that Tencent deems the geographically adjacent countries in the Asia Pacific region and India as the gateway for WeChat's global expansion. The Internet giant is also eyeing business opportunities in continents outside Asia – Europe (The UK and Spain), Americas (US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina), Africa (South Africa) and Australia.
Since entering the international market in April 2011, WeChat has been reinforcing its footing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but it has limited market share in the United States and Europe, where its user base remains confined to overseas Chinese, because of the cultural barrier and global censorship.
Given that consumers in the US typically consider local products as being superior to the Chinese-made ones, WeChat faces an uphill battle to lure users away from the local mobile messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, an application which set off the trend of mobile messaging and offers basic social networking functions similar to WeChat's.
Some industry insiders, however, believe that WeChat is a better and more innovative service than WhatsApp, which has failed to innovate and is still pretty much the same as it was a couple of years ago, because the former has some interesting functions that allow its users to read news, make video calls, search for people nearby to chat and so on.
"We are planning to establish a data center in the United States in an effort to speed up WeChat’s response speed and enhance its user experience," said WeChat's Program Manager Liu Lejun.
"We hope to make WeChat a global brand that can transcend cultural barriers. The value of this strategy has long been realized by famous Western enterprises," said Zhang Xiaolong, Tencent's vice president.
Tencent has already made great progress in technology development, capital operation and marketing, making it possible to overcome the cultural barriers by turning WeChat into a truly global service. But it is being fustigated for conducting global censoring of "sensitive" words and terms among WeChat's international users.
Chinese characters for "Southern Weekend" (南方周末), a magazine which was in the center of a rare protest against China's censorship system, are blocked. Photo: Techinasia.com
Tech in Asia has conducted several tests showing that the Chinese characters for "Southern Weekend" (南方周末), a magazine which was in the center of a rare protest against China's censorship system, are blocked when sent between users in China, Thailand, and Singapore.
If international users of WeChat, especially American users who uphold the right to free speech, know that the private messages they send are being monitored and will be blocked, they will detest it and will likely shun the application.
Thus, the success of WeChat in the overseas markets depends not only on the technology innovation and new communication widgets, but also on respecting the freedom of speech and allowing a free flow of information.