By Zara Zhang and Hans Tung

What is the most watched speech in the Chinese tech community? It is WeChat’s founder Allen Zhang’s keynote address at the WeChat Open Class PRO (WeChat’s equivalent of Apple’s WWDC or Google I/O) held in Guangzhou each January.

Zhang is the mastermind behind WeChat, the super app with 980 million monthly active users, and arguably the best consumer Internet product in the world. More importantly, WeChat has progressed beyond a super app into a de facto operating system—a phenomenon that GGV managing partners Hans Tung and Glenn Solomon first predicted in a post in 2016. This could pose a problem for Apple, whose main differentiator is its iOS operating system. Because WeChat is so omnipotent, iOS and Android have become almost interchangeable to Chinese consumers. In China, Apple is just another smartphone vendor trying to compete on the merit of its hardware—a precarious place for it to be. This is probably part of the reason that Apple has fallen to No. 5 in China’s smartphone market, 87% of which is captured by domestic brands as of Q2 2017.

Zhang, who has a Godfather-like status in China’s tech community, rarely appears in public and never gives media interviews (“A good product speaks for itself” is one of his most famous lines). Thus, whenever he speaks, the Chinese tech world listens, and analyzes every word. Pretty much every tech media outlet in China published the entire transcript of his annual speech, along with their analysis.

Allen Zhang new
Various Chinese tech media outlets’ headlines on the day of Zhang’s speech

Last year, when Zhang first gave this speech, he announced the introduction WeChat mini-programs—lightweight apps that live within WeChat—which made headlines around the world (read my takeaways from that speech here). On January 15th, 2018, Zhang delivered the second rendition of this speech, during which he laid out WeChat’s product roadmap and explained the philosophies guiding WeChat’s evolution.

TL;DR:

  • WeChat’s focus in 2018 will be helping users navigate the offline world
  • WeChat is making its search more powerful
  • WeChat reached a deal with Apple, and will re-introduce its tipping feature and allow users to tip authors directly
  • WeChat will integrate its regular version and Enterprise WeChat

Below are the quotes that we found most memorable from his speech:

Our goal is to be the best tool there is on the Internet.

We will never read users’ chat history. Users have told us their need for certain features, such as syncing conversation history to the cloud. It’s not that we can’t realize the sync technically. But from a security point of view, it’s best not to retain chat history, so that has always been our default mode.

Now that we are in the holiday season, many apps have tweaked their logos to include festive elements, and introduced a “looking back at 2017” feature in an effort to touch users’ hearts. But this is not something we would do. I think it’s a little disrespectful to try to touch someone on purpose. I think our product must maintain a very high level of professionalism, and treat users as friends, not as people that we can boss around.

We have always adhered to this principle: We don’t want to curate or interfere with various services provided on WeChat. Our goal is to allow good services to surface themselves and be found by users – not through our curation. This is also driven by our respect for users.

Many people have asked me: What’s the relationship between apps and mini-programs? We didn’t intend for mini-programs to replace apps. On the contrary, mini-programs are meant to enrich the usage scenarios for apps. There are many scenarios in which an app would be too cumbersome and inconvenient. Making people download an app for a simple offline scenario is too high a hurdle.

In the new version of WeChat, users will be able to “tip” the authors themselves directly, and not through the official accounts that the authors publish from. Features like red packets and tipping have “Chinese characteristics”, so American companies like Apple may not be able to appreciate them in the beginning. [Context: WeChat used to have a tipping feature for articles published on official accounts, which allowed users to send money directly to publishers through WeChat Pay, but was forced to take it down because Apple considered it to be a form of in-app purchase that should be subjected to fees].

After more discussions, we have reached some common understanding with Apple, so we will soon re-introduce the tipping feature. Moreover, in the past, the tips went to the official accounts; but the tips should really be going to the authors. In the future, you will be able to see each author, their biography, and their past articles, and tip them directly.

In the offline world, the entry point to WeChat is QR codes. What is the entry point in the online world? It’s search. We recently included a search feature within WeChat, where users can search for not just content on WeChat but also content within WeChat mini-programs. For example, you can search for a certain flight number and be able to see the real-time status of that flight. This information is provided by a mini-program.

We are working on integrating WeChat and Enterprise WeChat, so that enterprise users will be able to communicate easily with clients who are not on Enterprise WeChat.

WeChat’s next big step will be helping users explore the offline world. When WeChat first came out, we had an offline location-based feature called “people nearby” which allowed users to find users near them. Now, we hope to allow users to search all kinds of facilities in the offline world. This will be the direction of WeChat in 2018.

Click here to watch Allen Zhang’s full speech,  or read the transcript (both in Chinese).

We write a weekly email newsletter on tech trends in China, and host a podcast on US-China cross-border tech. Subscribe and listen at 996.ggvc.com.

 

Check out our other writings on WeChat:

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