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Stop Being Jealous of WeChat

July 2021

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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. Facebook desperately wants to be like WeChat, too.

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:

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.

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 explosive growth 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 ecosystem grew in importance, until WeChat was synonymous with Chinese internet. Such integration was inevitable. The name of the app was the only variable.

Of course, the heavenly kings still reigned over Tencent [the owner of WeChat] and all Chinese tech firms.

It is easier to rule a small pond than to rule a lake, just as it is easier to rule a lake than an ocean. Five tech firms outside of China have exceeded one trillion dollars each in market capitalization, with potentially more to come. Meanwhile, China's two largest tech firms have yet to cross the same mark - Tencent at around $700 billion and Alibaba at around $550 billion in July 2021.

When WeChat made strides to seamlessly integrate 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 peril of a "technological Leviathan" was still a theory less than a decade ago.

Perhaps a few years ago, the WeChat model would have appeared enviable, but not today. Big Tech has concentrated power and naturally integrated many aspects of the Internet. 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.

We still don't have a super-app. Instead, we have frequently-used apps, 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.

The web browser does not come with a clear agenda. Its history represents the organic growth of openness and access. Adding more users from anywhere matters. Changes, creations, and innovations happen 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 out in the open. The Web has more players, so it functions better in the long run.

WeChat came with an agenda. It grew in no time, but its headstart was only temporary.

Even if the WeChat ecosystem makes things more convenient for Chinese users, people outside will eventually enjoy the same convenience without using WeChat. China knows about convergence more than anyone in the world. Its tightening control on various fronts - privacy, proprietary ownership, and R&D - 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.

A note on Mark Zuckerberg's warning about Chinese tech firms: I find the statement more about aggregating 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 L├╝tke's tweet framed this essay's foundation. Thank you Tobi!