TechNode has been organizing the annual “China Bang Awards” since 2011. Over the past few years, TechNode has witnessed a large number of emerging startups grow into unicorns. For the upcoming ChinaBang Awards 2018, TechNode has started a special report to review the history of China Bang Awardees.

In 2017, a message from the art world sent a shockwave in the internet world: V&A, the world’s largest museum of art and design, listed WeChat as a permanent collection of exhibit 76, which consists of a mobile phone, a tablet, and three hand drawings.

V&A explained why this world-class museum wants to collect WeChat: the social app had a significant impact on Chinese culture and the daily lives of Chinese.

Although a social app needs to exchange data with a server, given the collection time span, V&A exhibited an early Android demo of WeChat — an offline version that doesn’t require a server to enable basic functionality.

WeChat V&A exhibit
WeChat usage video with sticker sketches, in situ at the V&A in London. It is a video of how the app is used rather than the app itself which is currently on display. The app is stored in the museum’s collection. (Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)

As an exhibit, WeChat has to isolate itself from the internet. And in the real world, WeChat is also not a product known for open-mindedness. Each iteration of WeChat over the past seven years has been accompanied by restraint, says its creator Zhang Xiaolong

Chinese people seem to be accustomed to the isolated ecosystem WeChat has created. For example, WeChat has its publication platform (WeChat Official Accounts) for famous persons, government, media, and enterprises to develop and promote content. The content is all hosted in Tencent’s servers. Videos and advertisements on WeChat all come with Tencent services. Articles in WeChat cannot be shared to other apps. The official account of WeChat’s competitor may also be banned.

Forbidding hyperlinks to control the traffic and transforming the internet into a local area network (LAN) is not a novel trick on the Chinese internet. WeChat believes its priority is to prohibit harassment of users. Many want to use a variety of ways to deceive users, acquire traffic and clicks, but it will eventually drive users away. Zhang Xiaolong thinks this isolated ecosystem of WeChat lays the ground for better user experience.

Sometimes, tricking the network with such a domineering attitude is not a bad thing. Apple’s iOS is born with a closed and self-built ecosystem, which helps the business grow.

But in 2017, WeChat seemed to recognize its responsibility and mission of providing services for billions of users and began to explore a new ecosystem outside its local network, while not forgetting to set up rules to maintain its initiative.

For example, the twelve spaces on WeChat’s wallet page are now gradually filled up with services like food delivery, online shopping, and movie tickets provided by third-party companies, such as Meituan, and Mobike. Despite the fact that all these companies have established a good relationship with Tencent, WeChat has demonstrated a significant step in opening access to its platform

Recently, WeChat’s latest significant update signal that it can support the switch-account feature, and all programs on the discovery page, including mini-programs, can be turned off.

WeChat, as a representative of centralization, is thinking about decentralization. Decentralization is not so much a concept but more like an awareness. Each has independent thinking, which is far more robust than another system with only one brain. Even if most people are using WeChat, it is just a service provider instead of a centralized referral service, allowing more valuable services to emerge as much as possible.

At the same time, WeChat also has adhered to its set of principles. For example, the New World (a Chinese self-media) created a pay-for-the-knowledge activity that flooded screens last month, but it lasted only one morning due to the internal review mechanism of WeChat. The social app can control the extent of permissions that an application is wanting to ensure the system runs well.

No matter how mini-programs and H5 web pages are distributed within WeChat, user’s access is strictly controlled by WeChat. WeChat’s other rules are stricter than an open internet. For social apps that maintains one billion monthly active users, it takes care of everything. So the benefit of a WeChat-based internet is to purify its inner-app information and improve the user experience.

“More and more products are made through official account because it is cheaper to develop, access users and disseminate them. But the service accounts derived from these official accounts do not provide better service,” Zhang Xiaolong said at a recent developer conferece. “So WeChat wants to develop a new form so that in the future users can follow these service accounts just like installing an app on your phone. These service accounts will not release content once upon a time but only provide functional services.”

Mini programs officially launched on January 9, 2017. More than 200 mini-programs from large application developers, such as Ctrip, Meituan, Meidi, Qunar were ready at launch. Even the rival of Tencent News, Toutiao, also made a mini program to attract WeChat users. The fact that so many developers are doing mini programs shows that no matter what rules WeChat sets, Chinese internet companies will follow.

After several iterations in 2017, the mini-program has not made much progress for more than a year. WeChat decided to push the mini-program with games, a field at which Tencent is very good. Games are a particular category in mini-programs: it is well-fitted for social networking and can get income faster. However, games have high limits and uncertainty, which is not good for attracting developers.
If you sell props through small games, there’s a split problem on the iPhone. Apple only promised not to deduct a percentage of the reward, and still covered other digital products.

WeChat has recently adopted a few features in promoting and opening small programs, such as support for jumping to other apps and unlocking some advanced plug-in elements. WeChat is believed to have more opportunities to prosper in 2018, exploring its boundaries.

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