Michael He

July 5, 2021

Stop Being Jealous of WeChat

In the West, WeChat is known as a super-app. We don't want this one particularly, but we wish we had something like it. At least Facebook desperately wants to be the super-app.

We shouldn't be jealous, because we already have our super-app. It's called the web browser.

The web browser does everything WeChat claims to do, but better:
  • Free access of information - blog, news, etc.
  • Seamless integration of payments and services.
  • Sharing and social media functionalities. 
  • QR code-enabled functionalities integrated with the iOS and Android native cameras.
  • And everything else.

One may argue that WeChat is not comparable to the web browser. I disagree. Users in China rely heavily on WeChat to access their Internet, just like users outside of China access the Internet with web browsers instead. It’s their default interface for accessing the Internet.

What makes WeChat worse than the web browser? As a WeChat user since 2011, I can give a few reasons. Most importantly, WeChat traps you at the expense of flexibility. You can't have unlimited tabs, as the button shortcut only allows six. Browser functions are suboptimal. Speed is incredibly slow. And there is the largest roadblock - the Firewall.

WeChat achieved mass adoption before the explosive growth phase in China's smartphone market, so it became the standard for China's mobile internet. It had the unique advantage to shape the taste of more than a billion users and the Chinese tech landscape. Users aggregated on WeChat, so everything else aggregated there. In turn, the WeChat ecosystem grew in importance, until it was synonymous with Chinese internet. Such integration was inevitable. The only variable of this scenario is the name of the app.

Of course, there are the heavenly kings that still reign over Tencent [the owner of WeChat] and all Chinese tech firms.
It is easier to rule a pond than a lake, just as it is easier to rule a lake than an ocean. There are five tech firms outside of China with more than one trillion dollars in market capitalization and that number will gradually grow over time. Meanwhile, China's two largest tech firms have yet to cross the same mark - Tencent at around $600 billion and Alibaba at around $457 billion in September 2021, hundreds of billions lower than their historic heights.

When WeChat made strides to seamlessly integrate the Internet with many aspects of daily life, we were still growing the number of apps. Gaps widened between companies and ecosystems. Messaging was one app. Digital payment was another. News reader was one thing. Ride-hailing was something else. Ironically, the perils of technological giants or the “digital Leviathan” were still theories only several years ago.

The WeChat model would seem enviable perhaps a few years ago. It is not any anymore. Big Tech has concentrated power and naturally integrated many aspects of the Internet. It’s definitely the most important change to society over the last five years and probably the next five as well. For what it's worth, Apple and Google have finally built QR code readers into their native cameras. Stripe, Apple Pay, Cash App, and the like have made digital payments much more convenient. All of WeChat’s best features are gradually becoming normal outside China without users needing WeChat. 
We still don't have a super-app. Instead, we have frequently-used apps (e.g. Spotify, Uber, Google Maps), the browser that handles all else, plus the APIs and infrastructure that make everything run on the Internet. They get the job done just as nicely. And they will get even better in the future. 

The web browser does not come with a clear agenda. Its history represents the organic growth of the Internet and the idea of openness and access. Adding more users from anywhere matters. Changes, creations, and innovations happen here with no directives from above. The Internet space is larger than any single country's enclosed network. There is more potential to build "roads" that connect things in the open because the Web has more players. It functions better in the long run by design.

WeChat came with an agenda. It grew in no time, but its headstart was only temporary. Even though the WeChat ecosystem makes things more convenient for Chinese users, people outside will eventually enjoy the same convenience without using WeChat. AndChina knows that more than anyone in the world. Its tightening control on various fronts - privacy, proprietary ownership, and R&D shifting to manufacturing instead of the consumer Internet - only confirms my suspicion. 
Now the world is on the right track, we don't need to catch up to WeChat. We have surpassed them. As a long time WeChat user, I wish them my sincere luck.
A note on Mark Zuckerberg's warning about Chinese tech firms: I find the statement more about collecting power via Facebook than privacy concerns. Facebook's effort to become the de facto Internet in some countries should be studied and scrutinized much more. 
Huge thanks to Samuel Kim and Andrew Zhao for the feedback. I couldn't have written anything this concise without your talents. Tobi Lütke's tweet framed this essay's foundation. Thank you Tobi!

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.