In this issue, we look more closely at three Bytedance apps, each representing part of the startup’s rapid expansion in recent years: Through acquisitions and internal development, the AI-powered company is covering more territory outside its core news and entertainment businesses.

Will things pan out in the long term? We’re not prophets, but we did consult facts and figures to make a few educated guesses at the state of Bytedance’s lesser-known offerings.

FaceU

Type: Free (in-app purchases)

Content: Selfies, photo-editing

Similar to: Meitu, MakeupPlus

Ranking: #11 in Photo & Video/Free (App Store, May 7)

Released: September 2014

FaceU, acquired by Bytedance-owned Toutiao in February 2018, is the most popular of the company’s three photo-editing apps.

In focus / ByteDance #5

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TechNode’s ByteDance newsletter, one of the first in-depth looks in English at the now-giant upstart startup, was published from March 13 to Oct. 23, 2019.

If you didn’t already know that Bytedance had multiple photo-editing apps, you could be excused; after all, their combined footprint—89 million monthly active users (MAU)* in December 2018, assuming each user is unique—was only 15% of the company’s estimated total MAU, according toQuestMobile

By contrast, Toutiao alone had 240 million MAU, while Douyin had 426 million MAU the same month.

*All figures for app users in China only.

Before being snapped up by Toutiao, FaceU had completed three rounds of funding, closing a Series C in October 2017 worth $50 million, according to Crunchbase.

Based on stats from app intelligence firm Qimai, FaceU has generally remained in the top 10 of the Apple App Store’s free “Photo & Video” category since early 2016. Since being acquired by Bytedance, it has mostly retained that status, although its ranking in the overall free app category has seen more volatility.

FaceU is currently linked to Bytedance’s relatively new video-social app Duoshan, which launched in January 2019. The interfaces are similar (see below), and Duoshan users can directly log into FaceU using their accounts, as well as send pictures to Duoshan contacts.

However, the reverse is not true. Photo- or video-snappers on Duoshan aren’t directed to FaceU’s enhancement interface—potentially a lost opportunity for user acquisition.

Duoshan

Type: Free

Content: Social, short videos

Similar to: WeChat, Snapchat

Ranking: #15 in Social/Free (App Store, May 7)

Released: January 2019

You may remember Duoshan from a post-launch surge in media coverage which spun it as a potential “WeChat-killer,” a claim that TechNode editor-in-chief John Artman doesn’t buy. The app, whose name can be literally translated as “very shiny,” combines a private messaging function with Douyin’s trademark short-video format.

Since then, however, the hype has died down to a dull roar, as Baidu’s search index shows. Over the last two months, in fact, search volume for FaceU’s Chinese name exceeds that for Duoshan.

FaceU has also had relatively more downloads in the last few months compared with Duoshan, according to Qimai. Although the photo-enhancement application may be seen as an attempt to support Duoshan, it’s evident that FaceU has a more stable following.

Finally, although Duoshan’s rankings are still relatively high in the free social app category in Apple’s App Store, in recent months it has dropped to the #10-20 range after consistently ranking in the top five from February through early March.It seems that WeChat needn’t check its rearview mirror just yet, although Tencent’s social titan is making moves towards more short-video content.

Tomato Novel

Type: Free (ads)

Content: Books

Similar to: WeChat Read, Midu

Rankings: #2 in Books/Free (App Store, May 7)

Released: January 2019

Tomato Novel is not among the 13 apps listed on Bytedance’s official website. Its cluttered user interface isn’t nearly as polished as that of Douyin or Duoshan.

Nevertheless, in March, Chinese media outlet Jiemian linked Tomato Novel back to Bytedance, sparking speculation about the new reading app.

Jiemian noted a marked resemblance to Midu, a product launched by Toutiao competitor Qutoutiao. Tomato Novel’s logo also looks similar to that of WeChat Read, Tencent’s reading app from 2015.

Unlike WeChat Read, however, which promises an ad-free experience and a limited amount of free content, Tomato Novel appears to actually be paying users to stay in-app. The icon at the center of the bottom navigation bar is literally labeled “Benefits.” Users who click in are offered monetary rewards for accomplishing tasks, such as reading for five, 30, or 60 minutes a day.

All content is free, although image and video ads are liberally scattered throughout the books, disrupting the reading experience. For that reason, as we previously reported, Tomato Novel has received a fair number of negative reviews from users. Readers have also complained about low-quality content.

However, no doubt thanks largely to its compensation scheme, Tomato Novel has remained ranked among the top five free apps in the Books category in Apple’s App Store since March, according to Qimai. As of May 7, its average rating across Apple and Android stores was a solid 3.6 out of 5 stars.

Bailey Hu

Bailey Hu is based in China’s hardware capital, Shenzhen. Her interests include local maker culture, grassroots innovation and how tech shapes society, as well as vice versa.

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com