San Francisco – The biggest long-term threat to the iPhone isn’t Android, Samsung or China’s bevy of cheap phones. Instead, it’s that apps work better if you embed them in a single program.
WeChat, China’s leading social media app, has just launched a new platform with that in mind. It has the potential to reconfigure smartphones radically.
The company calls the concept “mini programs”, and the idea is that users can call up useful features from third parties – photo filters, language tools, ride-sharing services – within the WeChat app and use them instantly, with no downloading or installation. This solves two crucial problems plaguing the app model.
First, the average size of an app has been increasing as developers pack in more features and media. That’s not a problem if you have unlimited data and a new iPhone 7. But in emerging markets consumers tend to use capped data plans and older phone models with less memory.
The second problem is shared by users worldwide: Registering an app is annoying.
Mini programs, by contrast, aren’t found in an app store. Users get links to them from friends or groups in a chat, or by scanning a QR code. Because they operate from the cloud, there’s no bandwidth-eating downloads. Because they accept payments from WeChat’s wallet, there’s no need to register or divulge payment information.
WeChat isn’t the only service to experiment with mini programs, but it’s better positioned to succeed with 768 million daily users.
For now, WeChat is changing smartphones in China. One day, soon, its impact will be felt worldwide.
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