Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo opened its internal team collaboration app to the public in an update released on Monday, prompting widespread local media reports that the online retailer was readying its entry into the booming enterprise productivity industry.

Knock, developed by Pinduoduo’s parent company, is a work productivity app designed to increase enterprise communication and management efficiency. Unlike Dingtalk, which offers a number of powerful—if controversial—features, the app has very basic communication functions, allowing users to create group chats, share files, and hold video conferences. 

First launched in late January, the app completed internal and public testing in February. It has seen little traction so far, with only an average 2.4 star rating from 25 reviews on Apple’s China App Store.

Pinduoduo employees have been using Knock for daily communications since the fourth quarter of 2019, a Chinese media report said.

A privacy term updated on Jan. 8 indicates that Knock is open to enterprise users only, but tests by a TechNode reporter show that it allows individual users to register as well. 

A Pinduoduo spokeswoman confirmed that the company developed the app but said that it is designed for internal use only. It was made publicly available for download to facilitate communication between merchants and Pinduoduo’s platform’s managers, according to the company.

Tech titans dipping their toes in work productivity 

The move opens up possibilities for the company to retain both enterprise and individual users who come to the platform for purposes other than e-commerce.

Company claims about Knock being an app only for internal use is reminiscent of Bytedance’s enterprise messaging tool Feishu, or Lark as it is known in overseas markets, which was also developed as an internal tool before the tech upstart began marketing the platform as a business in 2019. 

It is a common practice among large Chinese tech firms to develop homegrown communication apps to facilitate workflows as well as keep their data secure. Tech giants like Meituan, JD.com, Baidu, and Qihoo 360 all have their own instant messaging apps.

In response to the recent work collaboration boom driven by millions stuck at home during the Covid-19 outbreak, Chinese tech giants are eyeing the sector and opening their internal work apps, developed and tested within the company, to mark territory in the growing market. 

In addition to Pinduoduo, Baidu is reportedly (in Chinese) going to open up Baidu Hi, an app mainly used by the search engine and its partners, for public use.

However, team collaboration isn’t an easy market to succeed in. It will require significant effort for newcomers to convert the products into a solid business, or even to compete with incumbents. 

“The market is already quite crowded and it will be difficult for new entrants to step in,” Thomas Graziani, founder of the WalktheChat agency, told TechNode.

The sector’s biggest players have put in years toward building out their businesses. Alibaba’s Dingtalk has been up and running for six years and as of June said it had 200 million users. Tencent’s WeChat Work has been in operation for four years and said in January that it has 60 million active users.

Dingtalk is popular with small- to medium-sized companies, according to a Chinese media report, whereas WeChat Work is more popular with large corporations. Accordingly, WeChat Works said that 80% of China’s top-500 companies use its service.

Bytedance’s Feishu, a relative latecomer, is also growing in popularity. Bytedance’s tools stand as rivals to Dingtalk and WeChat Work because it is one of the few companies which is accustomed to working both inside and outside of mainland China, thanks to the popularity of TikTok, according to Graziani.

Covid-19 triggers work collaboration boom in China

Users for work collaboration apps surged over the past month as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, which forced millions in self-quarantine to work remotely. 

Dingtalk and WeChat Work saw an unprecedented surge in traffic on Feb. 10, the first day back to work after the extended Spring Festival holiday. More than 200 million employees of tens of millions of Chinese businesses worked remotely that day, according to Dingtalk.

In addition to workplace clients, the epidemic also delivered a younger user segment to the apps. Although unpopular with Chinese students, Chinese apps like Dingtalk and Lark are recognized by Unesco and included in its list of apps recommended for distance learning.

The strategic importance of team collaboration services has increased for Chinese tech giants over the past two years because it forms a key link in the shift to enterprise-facing tech.

Emma Lee

Emma Lee is Shanghai-based tech writer, covering startups and tech happenings in China and Asia in general. We are looking for stories related to tech and China. Reach her at lixin@technode.com.