WeChat has revamped WeChat Address Book (our translation), which previously was for caller identification and contact backup only, with the addition of free voice calls. Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, recently also launched the voice call app Lighttalk, which is available in both Chinese and English.
The addition of call features is a natural step for mobile messaging apps. It’s widely agreed that LINE, the South Korean chat app, became successful in Japan because of the free calling feature (KaKao, LINE’s major competitor in South Korea, agree with this analysis). Free voice calls is a killer app in many developing countries. Talkray, whose selling point is free calls even with slow mobile internet connections, is popular in countries like India.
Chinese messaging apps are not blind. It was believed they hadn’t added VoIP calling through fear of offending the three state-owned Chinese telecom operators, for whom telephone call is historically one of their major revenue sources. But now the mobile internet trend is unstoppable. The three major telcos have all seen revenues from text messaging inexorably decline, thanks to WeChat and its peers.
Under pressure, the telecom operators now want data plans to be their major revenue stream. They are fully aware that consumers primarily use mobile apps for communication, rather than their services. China Telecom has teamed up with Chinese internet company Netease, with their joint venture’s messaging app EasyChat offering a certain amount of international calls for free. Feixin, the chat app created by China Mobile connecting PCs and mobiles, also has similar offerings.
Despite this, the telcos still want to charge for calls. TouchPal, best known for its keyboard app, released a free voice call feature for its lifestyle app last month, saying that unlike those telecom operators, they would never charge for it. WeChat, backed by the cash rich Tencent with experience of monetizing a user base driven by free services, is not expected to charge users for this feature. No matter what the telcos think, it’s very likely that more voice call apps will emerge in the near future. As these platforms proliferate, they will change the way China communicates, and change the country too – just as WeChat has changed it.