Editor’s note: On Feb 13, 2017, TechNode held its first event of the year, looking at WeChat mini-apps, what they are and whether they have a future. Below are some highlights. You can also listen to the whole panel here.

After much hype, WeChat mini-apps don’t seem to have much a future. That was the conclusion of a panel discussion held on Feb 13 at DayDayup in Beijing.

Both Thomas Graziani and Drew Kirchhoff shared their views of mini-apps and unfortunately, the conclusions drawn ranged from lukewarm reception to outright dismissal.

Thomas Graziani, CEO of WalktheChat, a WeChat marketing consultancy, was very bearish, going so far as to say that mini-apps have no future.

“If you think about new innovation, there are basically three categories: innovations which don’t suck, . . . things which suck for now, . . . and then you stuff which really sucks and will suck forever,” said Thomas. “What makes mini-apps really weak is that [they are competing with WeChat service accounts] which is just better. There’s no amount of improvement you can make to make them competitive against service accounts.”

Drew Kirchhoff, co-founder of WeChat-based language learning platform yoli, however, was more conciliatory, saying that while they may have been launched poorly, mini-apps could provide the foundation for WeChat’s future dominance through AR.

“I’m not going to say they’ve been a complete failure. The response from the [WeChat] team is that this is all about offline. Mini-apps aren’t supposed to be apps themselves; they’re supposed to create an offline experience,” said Drew. “Instead of online to offline, mini-apps are more offline back to online. In [Alan Zhang’s speech] when he announced mini-apps, he talked about how in ten years we would be able to use [AR integration] . . . to create an offline OS.”

What are mini-apps?

Before release everyone called them mini-apps, but now WeChat is officially calling them Mini-Programs, seemingly in an attempt to steer clear of any conflicts with Apple and their App Store provisions against other app stores on their platform.

“After Tencent denied approval for calling them yingyonghao [应用号 or “app account” in English)], WeChat came up with xiaochengxu [小程序 or “little program” in English],” said Drew. “Both are literal translations, but they are basically the same thing.”

Interestingly enough, they can potentially replace traditional apps. Instead of having to install and uninstall, users can just use once and never have to think about them again. Not only that, but app stores across platforms are oversaturated and underutilized.

“The basic idea is that you don’t have to install apps so much. If you look at how many apps you installed last week or last month, the average number is close to zero. The question is how do you get more people to interact with you on a more personal basis, said Thomas. “The solution for WeChat is service accounts and subscription accounts, but that was not good enough: they wanted something more native and faster. The more nerdier branch of Tencent in Shenzhen decided that solution would be mini-apps. The idea is that people don’t need to download apps and brands can interface with users.”

Do mini-apps have a future?

Given this promise, there are quite a few companies exploring this type of user experience, most notably Google with their instant apps. However, unlike Google and their massive Android I/O conference, WeChat has been relatively silent about their mini-apps. And, yet, there was a ton of buzz about mini-apps, with even some speculating this could be Tencent’s play to replace the App Store and obviate the OS as a platform.1

“A lot of developers knew that if you were the first, if you could be the first one to launch your mini-app, you would get a huge amount of users on the first day and would be able to monetize it and convert those users to other channels,” said Drew. “For a lot of developers in the beginning, it was a chance to be first, to capitalize on the very short development times of 1-2 weeks, and of lot of people are just kind of sick of app stores. Mini-apps were supposed to be the chance to do something new and be potentially the first to be part of the next revolution.”

However, in just over a month, mini-apps have lost a of traction. According to Baidu’s search index, searches for xiaochengxu have decreased dramatically over the last 30 days.

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 18.44.46
Baidu 30 day seach index for mini-apps (Image credit: WalktheChat)

On top of that, there have yet to be any compelling use cases with most mini-apps being extension of official accounts.

“Offline use cases are interesting if its something you can use once, like paying for gas. I can scan the QR code and pay for the gas, increasing convenience for users. You could argue that its a bit faster than a website even though I find that questionable,” said Thomas. “Why not have people follow your service account so that you can interact with them later? If you really don’t to talk to these people again, then its really about have one touch point and that can make sense.”

Even then, they do still provide an alternative to traditional apps by not taking up any space on your phone’s storage. This may be good for people who are finding themselves with too many apps already or just not enough space on their phones, in particular lower-end devices with little space to begin with.

“Before mini-apps launched, I couldn’t download any more apps because my phone didn’t have enough storage. So instead of downloading ofo, I just used the service account,” said Drew. “At the time, I thought it was great because I don’t have to leave WeChat to use ofo. . . but since the first week of launch I haven’t used any mini-apps [because using apps is faster].”

  1. And, yes, TechNode did contribute to some of this (some might say) over-hype.
John Artman, outgoing EIC of TechNode

John Artman

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...