When Facebook bought WhatsApp earlier this year for 19 billion USD, it was not so much for the app's capabilities, but rather to stop it growing into a mobile social network to rival Facebook's own. There is however a problem for Mark Zuckerberg – such a network already exists. Based in China, with over 600 million users, WeChat dominates East Asia, and now it's going global.
WeChat dominates East Asia, and now it's going global.
WeChat began as “weixin”, a mobile messaging app created by Chinese internet company Tencent, well known for its QQ IM client. Initially launched in January 2011, it embarked on a journey of rapid and explosive growth within the mainland Chinese market. Within its first year, it gathered its first 50 million users, growing with the rising popularity of the smartphone in China. By 2013, it reached a userbase of 300 million, as well as rebranded itself as 'WeChat' for the international market.
Such was the popularity of the platform, that it began to severely impact the profits of China Telecom, the largest telecommunications company in the world. Using its political connections, China Telecom attempted to block the growth of WeChat, denouncing it in major newspapers and pushing for WeChat to charge a fee for its service. This did nothing to slow the growth of the app, ending 2013 with a reported 600 million users, of which over 100 million were international users.
There are other reasons for Facebook to be afraid.
Aside from this huge user base, there are other reasons for Facebook to be afraid. Unlike other competitors like LINE, Kakao Talk and Viber, WeChat has grown to resemble more of a social network, rather than a mobile messaging system. Incorporating elements of Instagram, Vine and Twitter, combined with personal profiles optimized for a mobile experience, the application represents an alternative to Facebook for people who are spending less and less time tied down to a desktop computer.
From a business perspective, this is threatening in the developing markets of Southeast Asia, India, South America and Africa; areas in which Facebook would have to grow in order to realize the profits its investors demand. In these areas however, people are less likely to be able to afford a desktop or laptop computer, instead investing in a more portable (and lower cost) smartphone. As such, for them, Facebook will need to provide a more mobile-optimized product if it is to compete with WeChat.
The West might already be won by Facebook, but we'll see who wins the battle for the rest.
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