Everything You Need To Know About WeChat's New Cloud-Based App Platform "Mini Program"

摘要: What's exactly WeChat's "Mini Program"? What does it mean to the Chinese internet and business circle? What's WeChat's plan, and ambition? Who's to benefit most? What opportunities are out there?

(Chinese Version)

Voila, WeChat added the “Mini Program” function in the latest update of both WeChat’s IOS (Version6.5.3) and Android APP(Version6.5.3) on the morning of January 1st, as scheduled. Besides, Android users could pin the “Mini Program” to their smartphone desktop, which makes them look pretty similar to APPs.

The entire Chinese internet world is either thrilled or anxious and puzzled by this latest update. Within half an hour WeChat issued its official guide to WeChat Mini Program, the article’s view times reached over 100,000. Finally, the long-awaited “Mini Program” was launched, but it brought people not only excitement and curiosity, but also tons of questions and doubts.

What can users do via WeChat “Mini Program”?

1. WeChat users can get access to other APPs through their corresponding “Mini Programs” inside WeChat. Yet, only “Mini Programs” that users have opened will appear in their “Mini Program” page, and there won’t be any App Store-like official collection of all “Mini Programs”.

2. When WeChat users are inside a “Mini Program”, they can share it with their WeChat friends, though they can’t share it in their WeChat friends circle.

3. WeChat users can only search a “Mini Program” by searching its full name (except for some exceptions), so fuzzy search won’t work.

4. A company can link its “Mini Program” with its WeChat Official Account. However, one “Mini Program” can only be linked with one WeChat Official Account, while one WeChat Official Account can be linked with five “Mini Programs”.

5. WeChat users can’t get inside a “Mini Progam” by long pressing a QR code and using the “Extract QR code” function. Instead, the only way they can get inside a WeChat “Mini Program” by scanning its corresponding QR code with the smartphone camera.

6. WeChat users can find “Mini Programs” nearby, which satisfies their need for offline service.

7. Customer notice can be sent via WeChat “Mini Program”, but only to WeChat users who’ve kept their “Mini Programs” to their “Mini Program” page.

In a word, no social connection, subscription or fan connection are enabled inside “Mini Program”. Therefore, APPs that have strong social networking, media or reading feature aren’t fit to develop “Mini Programs”, and WeChat Official Account and high-frequency social networking and media APPs are still irreplaceable. Instead, “Mini Programs” are more like an online gateway for offline services, while pure tool-type and low-frequency APPs will be affected most.

However, this may be just for now. WeChat’s ambition might be to directly link offline and the virtual world through “Mini Program” in the future.

Offline! Offline!

On December 28th, 2016, members of a WeChat group called “WeChat Mini Program, Here We Go” inside MWEE, a SaaS platform for restaurant service, got so excited when watching Zhang Xiaolong, known as the founder of WeChat, delivering a speech at WeChat’s annual WeChat Pro Conference in Guangzhou and revealing to the the public for the first time the mystery of “Mini Program”.

Zhang’s answer was very brief and short: “No entry, no ‘App’ Store, no daily post, no game, no traffic drainage, no recommendation, independent from WeChat Official Accoutn, and can’t be shared in friends circle.” After hearing what Zhang clarified and revealed about “Mini Program”, members of MWEE’s WeChat Group “WeChat Mini Program, Here We Go” started a heated discussion.

On December 28th, 2016, Zhang Xiaolong revealed the details of “Mini Program” to the public for the first time during the annual WeChat Pro Conference held in Guangzhou.

“It really came as a surprise. We thought WeChat would develop ‘Mini Program’ in the same way as App Store or WeChat Official Account. However, now it seems developers or companies who’ve developed ‘Mini Program’ that way have been set up,” Zhao Yan, general manager of MWEE’s user platform division told TMTpost.

However, Zhao was relieved to find that they could actually take advantage of “Scan” function in various offline scenarios. Since MWEE have always been a service provider for restaurants, they could adjust its service accordingly: set up MWEE’s QR codes at the gate of restaurants, guide users to book tables, order and pay all through MWEE’s “Mini Program”.

Service platforms targeting mainly offline user scenarios such as MWEE got really lucky, yet online service platforms are those that are “set up”, just as Zhao has mentioned. After Zhang Xiaolong revealed these details about “Mini Program”, they’ve got to shift their strategy accordingly.

“We have expected to gain more traffic with the help of WeChat,” Fan Huaiyu, co-founder of QingMang, told TMTpost. Qing Mang, a startup project initiated by Android smartphone&PC management tool Wandoujia’s founder Wang Junyu, was freshly launched last September. They started developing “Mini Program” almost at the same time, but have lowered their expectations towards it and started looking for other new user scenarios.

WeChat recruited 200 beta testing participants last September, but over 200,000 people have signed up for “Mini Program” up till now. Yet, nobody knows for quite sure about “Mini Program” before it is officially launched on January 9th.

Opportunity?

Since the day WeChat was said to be developing “Mini Program”, entrepreneurs and developers have started guessing what changes can it bring. As more details come out, they gradually find answers to some of their questions, but come up with even more questions.

Ten days before “Mini Program” was officially launched, many people have already found the entry of Mini Program in Android WeChat’s beta version; three days before it was launched, WeChat updated the service scope of “Mini Program” and added hot-spot service areas such as “Sharing” and “Live Streaming”.

Since the official launch, Zhao Jiuzhou, CEO of Mars Mobile, has been answering developers’ questions about Mini Program in a WeChat group he established, such as “Can we add ads to Mini Program?”, “How should corresponding Mini Program of live streaming and social networking APPs be developed?”, “Is it possible for a ‘Mini Program’ to get popular?”. Although he tried his best to answer these questions, more questions about Mini Program were come up with on various WeChat groups, forums, microblogs and communities.

While WeChat Official Account rises to popularity at a snail’s pace, “Mini Program” is amost born with a silver spoon. As a matter of fact, relevant ecosystems have already been established even before it is officially launched.

For example, some Business-end companies, just like Zhao Jiuzhou’s Mars Mobile, will provide e-commerce, O2O and tool-type platforms with templates and help them develop their Mini Program within ten minutes; other companies help Mini Program developers monitor data (Data analyzing company Growing IO prepared its SaaS tool targeting companies’ “Mini Program” three months ago); still others develop App Store-like platforms of WeChat “Mini Program”. For example, App recommendation platform AppSo is said to have developed the first App Store for “Mini Program” in China, in hopes of continuing its glory and authority in APP recommendation to “Little Program” recommendation.

The App Store for WeChat “Mini Program” developed by AppSo. Users can have a list of all the “Mini Programs” and easily get the QR code of the “Mini Program” they want.

Although the potential in the entire ecosystem has been well-explored, it doesn’t follow that the value of “Mini Program” will as high. As a matter of fact, we find that many interviewees said things such as “we shall wait and see”, “maybe there’s an opportunity”, “we are still exploring different opportunities” during our interview. Indeed, many entrepreneurs simply want to have a try, since cost is not so high and there’s nothing to lose. Maybe there might be opportunities for success. Who knows?

While the Goddess of Mercy tricked the Monkey King into wearing the Incantation of the Golden Hoop to control him, Zhang Xiaolong also imposes restrictions on “Mini Program” in order to avoid the problems of WeChat Official Account. Nevertheless, people have to explore the potential of Mini Program, fulfil their goals and achieve breakthrough while obeying WeChat’s rules.

Where does the opportunity lie?

Now that people have to obey WeChat’s rules and be restricted by WeChat’s enclosed ecosystem, how can they best achieve the value of “Mini Program”? Where does the opportunity lie?

MWEE is one of the first bunch of companies that sensed the opportunity of “Mini Program”. I’ve already mentioned their “Here We Go, WeChat Mini Program” WeChat group above, but they also have another WeChat group called “MWEE@Mini Program Beta Testing Communicating”.

This WeChat group was established on November 9th, 2016, but it was established by WeChat Mini Program’s developing team. After MWEE applied to WeChat with their Demo Mini Program, WeChat Mini Program’s developing team got in touch with MWEE and established the WeChat group to exchange ideas and give advice more conveniently in the later stage, Zhao Yan recalled.

It is reported that there are no more than twenty to thirty members in WeChat’s Mini Program’s developing team. That is to say, WeChat won’t be able to establish too many such WeChat groups and communicate directly with individual applicants. What impressed Zhao most was a tiny detail during their communication with WeChat Mini Program’s developing team: they specifically told MWEE to wait no time and add “Sharing” function to their “Mini Program”.

“WeChat want to extend the user scenario of Mini Program, but they aren’t capable of setting up QR codes offline That’s why it has to turn to service providers like us to solve this problem,” Zhao explained to TMTpost.

MWEE has not only received investment from Dianping (a key component of Tencent’s ecosystem) in its latest C-round financing, but also provided online restaurant-booking, queuing and ordering service for over 400,000 restaurants in more than 200 cities across China. These may help explain why WeChat Mini Program eyed on MWEE and got in touch of its own accord.

Based on its huge offline user base, MWEE has become one of the major “Mini Programs” recommended by WeChat. During the 2016 WeChat Pro Conference, MWEE was even used to demonstrate how “Mini Program” worked.

Here’s the first bunch of companies who are invited by WeChat to undergo beta testing: JD. Ctrip, eLong, Dianping, Meituan, MaoYan, WeiPiao, etc. It’s no easy to find that most of them are O2O and e-commerce platforms. In fact, MWEE and WeiPiao’s Mini Program were used to demonstrate how Mini Program worked in the demo session of 2016 WeChat Pro Conference, Ctrip.

Although many entrepreneurs are excited about “Mini Program” and its potential, they have to realize that to extend its influence offline, WeChat seems to prefer large-sized companies and platforms that have already accumulated a large user offline.

Still, there is some hope. Liu Yongfeng, senior product manager of Tencent, once shared his thoughts about “Mini Program” with TMTpost, saying that offline and online used to be separate worlds, and these two worlds aren’t well-connected. While APPs are more like isolated islands of information, WeChat aims to bridge the gap between these two worlds via “Mini Program” and better connect these two worlds.

QingMang’s developing team also focus its attention on “exploring user scenarios” when developing its own “Mini Program”. “For example, when you are in a coffee bar, you can read contents about coffee by scanning QR code, share these contents with their friends or WeChat groups, and even invite other people to co-read or co-edit the contents,” Fan Huaiyu introduced to TMTpost one possible user scenario of QingMang.

Mini program, great ambition

Seeing the increasing registered developers on its Mars Mobile’s developer platform, Zhao Jiuzhou could hardly fall asleep the night before WeChat “Little Program” was officially launched.

“I am afraid I have to calm them down a little bit,” Zhao told TMTpost.

Among the projects of 2,000 developers that signed up on Mars Mobile, 90 per cent are purely online tools, such as weather forecasting, calendar and stock management tools. For Zhao, the real value of “Mini Program” lies in connecting offline service with online information. However, since most developers don’t understand well the market, they just follow suit without much of their own judgment.

Zhao divided the future development of “Mini Program” into three phases: for the first three months, many pure online tools will emerge; three months later, other types of “Mini Program” will emerge and some developers will start considering the opportunity for commercialization; at last, “Mini Program” without much value will be crashed out, while those with real value will survive. At that time, people will open APPs less and WeChat will be connecting offline and online world more effectively in various user scenarios.

However, it’s no easy thing to achieve commercialization via “Mini Program”. For example, corporate collaboration platform MingDao only provides “Calendar” function in its corresponding “Mini Program” to make a clear distinction between its advanced and paid service and free service.

“Platforms that have already accumulated a certain user base can keep these users and improve their loyalty via ‘Little Program’, newly-developed platforms, however, will still have to think about ways to attract users,” Ren Xianghui, founder of MingDao, told TMTpost.

According to Ren, they are not only aware of the possible challenge from “Mini Program” to their business model, but also worried about the ownership right of data. It is worthy noticing that if WeChat users log in a “Mini Program” with their WeChat account and pay or conduct other behaviors, WeChat will grab all the data. However, as data is becoming increasingly important, not every company is willing to easily give it away to WeChat.

As a matter of fact, the capital market is also very calm about “Mini Program”. Wang Tianfan, vice president of Bertelsmann Asia Investment, believed that “Mini Program” was fit for well-known platforms that had already accumulated a large user base online, or had the ability to set up QR codes offline and attract traffic to online. Therefore, he didn’t think investors would invest in less-known platforms that targeted a minority of consumers and wouldn’t earn much revenue.

Nobody knows how far WeChat’s “Mini Program” can go in the future, but we should not forget the lesson of Html5 and WeChat Service Account. The former has been forgotten, while the latter has been abandoned.

As early as 2014 World Internet Conference, Pony Ma, founder and CEO of Tencent, already mentioned that Tencent’s goal was to “connect everything”. Today, it seems that “Mini Program” has become one of the most potent “weapons” of WeChat to achieve this goal. On the one hand, you can say it’s “open” to developers and competent business owners to facilitate their business; on the other hand, however, you can also say that WeChat is trying to establish an enclosed ecosystem, connect and include all offline scenarios that haven’t been well-connected to online by itself. This might be WeChat’s ambition, or motivation, to some degree.

On January 9th, WeChat updated the latest version and officially launched “Mini Program”. Coincidently, Zhang Xiaolong posted a group of photos about Steve Jobs’ launch of iPhone a decade ago on his personal WeChat friends circle after the official launch of “Mini Program”.

Coincidently, Zhang Xiaolong posted a group of photos in memory of Steve Jobs’ launch of iPhone a decade ago on his personal WeChat friends circle after the official launch of “Mini Program”.

Maybe, the story just begins now.

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[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Su Jianxun, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Levin Feng (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.

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