Tencent, China’s biggest social media company, is opening its messenger app to the newest versions of rival services in a move that will encourage app developers to create links inside the messaging app.
The WeChat app has been closed to the second and third versions of WeChat because it controls around 80% of China’s smartphone market. China is now the largest global smartphone market with 2.5bn smartphone users.
The move is an about-face for Tencent, which said it was forcing third-party developers to link their apps with WeChat, known as Weixin, in January. More than 200 of China’s 700,000 app developers have since signed up.
The new rules restrict links within the app to banking, travel, email and mapping services because of security concerns, but developers wanting to include other services have been unable to connect.
Tencent has for now reversed the policy and will allow developers to connect their services. Tencent said the new rule would not require developers to use WeChat.
One area where the WeChat application has never been integrated is with competitors’ communication apps. Android has its own app stores, while Apple has its own store for the App Store. Each of the three remaining app stores offers hundreds of thousands of third-party links to apps, with user reviews of the links crucial to their success.
WeChat is popular in China with the young, tech-savvy generation who are its biggest users. The app has open to all developers the ability to link to their service, but the link has not been as useful as it could be in promoting users, Tencent said.
Tencent is hoping that ending the closed-off system will create a new market for developers and users who are familiar with WeChat’s distinctive features.
By allowing links to apps and services, the company is effectively copying a US strategy of promoting services through social media platforms.
As WhatsApp’s roots have been found in text messages, it also made a huge effort to make the messaging app the hub of social activities, including links to other apps, news, games and features.
On one level, Tencent’s move is essentially playing catch-up with rivals such as Facebook, whose Messenger app is now controlled by its WhatsApp subsidiary.
While it has seen its market share drop recently, Tencent could look for ways to use that to its advantage and integrate services into WeChat.
The WeChat app became the most popular social media service in China in 2017, and has 500m active users a month.
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WeChat is also a rare social app in China that is permitted to use Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, in a move to build more influence.
Tencent is already using the position it has over Chinese messaging services to connect users of its media platforms with Chinese media websites. On 14 July, Tencent added Weibo and the People’s Daily newspaper to the list of outlets that can be promoted through WeChat. The newspaper has more than 420m monthly readers.
Google, Facebook and Twitter remain banned in China.