Mini-programs: dying fad or the future of messaging apps?

Apps-within-an-app is becoming the latest proxy for the Tencent-Alibaba rivalry.

Editorial

Many people will think of Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store when speaking of mobile app stores. In fact, there are several other third-party app stores one can use, such as those set up by Amazon and Opera, as well as F-Droid for open-source Android apps. The concept of an app store within an app is hard to grasp; however, it became a reality in January 2017 when WeChat unveiled its new “mini-program” function. Users could do many things such as booking taxis and shopping online without leaving the WeChat app. Industry watchers regarded this move by Tencent as a challenge to existing app stores, an attempt to carve out a space of its own in this lucrative area and grab a slice of the cake.

Alipay playing catch-up

Not long after the release of WeChat mini-programs, word got out that Alipay (of Alibaba Group) was inviting developers for internal testing of their mini-programs. While Alipay planned to release their mini-programs in April 2017, development was continually plagued by issues. These problems repeatedly delayed the release date.

Finally, on 18th August 2017, Alipay opened their mini-program platform for public testing, and the general public could have a first look at what developments were to come. Unfortunately, some blunders left Alipay red-faced.

Both companies’ offerings shared the same name and many other similarities, to the point of being nearly identical. Furthermore, WeChat mini-program developers had their names appear in the source code of Alipay mini-programs. This led some netizens to question whether Alipay had merely copied WeChat’s code into their own applications. In an apology statement, Alipay explained that the developers’ names had originated from their use of WeChat’s app demos. Alipay also reiterated the fact that they used base code and technologies which were different from what WeChat had used, and assured users that such gaffes would not happen again.

Some screenshots of Alipay mini-programs. From left to right: a mini-program displaying flight information; appointment registration; a taxi-booking mini-program; other services.

Some screenshots of WeChat mini-programs. From left to right: a mini-program displaying flight information; a to-do list; a taxi-booking mini-program (two screenshots).

Were mini-programs flawed from the start?

Unfortunately, beyond these production hiccups and from a purely functional perspective, these mini-programs have perhaps proved to be a disappointment. Many anticipated that mini-programs would be something extraordinary, that WeChat (and subsequently Alipay) would bring new and exciting capabilities to the table. However, these lofty expectations were never met, and mini-programs felt more like rehashes of existing apps than novel inventions.

After users’ initial honeymoon period, usage of these mini-programs dropped sharply, due to mini-programs’ limited functionality compared with regular apps and the lack of fresh releases. Another reason could be that instead of simple access from the home screen, additional steps are required to open the main messaging app and navigate to the desired mini-program. In today’s fast-paced world, even a small inconvenience like this means a lot to the typical user looking to make the most of their time.

Rivalry extends beyond companies’ traditional sectors

Regardless of the mini-programs themselves, one question remains – why is Alipay looking to compete with WeChat in this area, even after the initial craze for mini-programs has come and gone? The backing companies of WeChat and Alipay (Tencent and Alibaba respectively) are two of the largest corporations in the Chinese cyberspace industry, and both have ties with numerous other companies beyond their primary operations. When a gap in the market opens up, both companies race to invest and gain a foothold in them. For example, Tencent and Alibaba invested in recent bike-sharing start-ups ofo and Mobike, both of whom were more than happy to accept funding.

Tencent and Alibaba ostensibly focus on different segments of the internet – Tencent provides social media platforms, Alibaba deals in e-commerce. However, they compete fiercely in several other fields, mini-programs being one of the newest examples. While the development of mini-programs might seem insignificant now, should either company perfect their approach and improve their platform, they could sway the user base strongly toward their app and away from the competition. This would bring with it a large advantage in both user count and users’ commitment to their app, leading to an increase in overall market share. Thus, recent happenings in the area of mini-programs could be a harbinger for a new level of competition between Tencent and Alibaba. If they both remain on their current course, only one can eventually emerge victoriously.