More than 300 million users in less than two years have flocked to Tencent's WeChat, the Chinese Internet giant's suite of social networking plug-ins. Why? WeChat is less expensive, clearer, and faster than calling people on the phone. "It's the only mobile communication system out there right now," says Rico Zhou, 33, who runs a bakery in Beijing. But this dominance understates why WeChat became the most-talked-about innovation in China last year.
CENTRALIZE TO SERVE USERS
People use WeChat in part out of extreme convenience. They have the same password, navigational tools, and contact list across all its features—a relief in a country where malicious software apps abound. Here, there's just one software company to trust.
DECENTRALIZE TO INNOVATE
Late last spring, Tencent opened up its platform to other developers to create cool things for WeChat (or Weixin, as it's known in China). It's now a one-stop shop: Features include push-to-talk voice chat (like a walkie-talkie); Shake, which brings up a list of everyone nearby shaking their phone at the same time (often used as a hookup tool); and Drift Bottle, which connects anyone looking to chat.
Tencent's aggressive international rollout, through Southeast Asia, Russia, Turkey, and the U.S.—rare for a Chinese company—has added millions of expats who can now communicate with folks back home, increasing its popularity. In America, WeChat is a top 20 free social networking app in Apple's App Store.
[Photo by Zachary Bako]