How Facebook, Apple, and Google have tried to copy WeChat, the massively popular Chinese messaging app that Trump is trying to ban

ReutersFILE PHOTO: A picture illustration shows a WeChat app icon in Beijing
  • WeChat, which is the target of a new executive order from President Trump, served as somewhat of a blueprint for tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple when it comes to mobile messaging.
  • WeChat is a popular texting app that’s used in China for many aspects of daily life, from making purchases to hailing a cab.
  • Following WeChat’s growth in China, companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple began allowing third-party apps and services to plug into their own messaging platforms.
  • Facebook and Google, however, have since pivoted their messaging apps.
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The idea of using an app like Facebook Messenger to send money to a friend or summon an Uber may have seemed strange to many in the United States five years ago.

But in China, using a single app for everything – both online and in the real world – was already the norm. WeChat, the Tencent-owned Chinese messaging app with more than one billion users, is a centrepiece of daily life in China.

The app, which launched in 2011, is the target of a newly issued executive order from President Trump that seeks to prohibit transactions on the platform by any person or involving any property under the United States’ jurisdiction. Trump issued the order citing national security concerns, and lobbed a similar order at the popular Chinese-owned video app TikTok.

WeChat didn’t launch its “mini apps” feature until 2017, which allows users to access apps within WeChat without downloading them on their phone. But even before mini apps debuted, people in China were already using WeChat for sending payments, mobile banking, and booking rideshare services – use cases that were well beyond the scope of popular messaging apps in the US at the time. Now, WeChat is used for everything from booking doctor’s appointments to hailing taxi rides, making payments, shopping, and even filing for a divorce.

That hasn’t gone unnoticed in the US. The growth of WeChat seemingly gave way to a messaging app Renaissance in Silicon Valley around 2016, when companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google overhauled their digital messaging offerings to more closely match WeChat’s “do everything” approach. These attempts have largely flopped for the most part, except for Apple’s iMessage, as Facebook and Google have since pivoted the directions of their digital messaging apps.

Facebook launched its big initiative to turn its Messenger app into a platform back in 2016, an effort that it hoped would transform its companion chat app into an all-encompassing hub for booking a ride, playing games, and interacting with businesses.

It has since walked back that approach, instead opting to focus on making its Messenger app simpler, faster, and more focused on communication as it seeks to compete with rival Snapchat. Users can still interact with businesses on Messenger, but the company introduced a sleeker version of Messenger earlier this year that axes the “Discover” tab for finding services that work within the app.

Apple, meanwhile, also began allowing third-party apps to plug into its iMessage texting app in 2016. Apple’s iMessage now has its own mini App Store accessible from directly within a text thread, where you can download sticker packs, keyboards, and games. More recently, Apple unveiled a new iPhone feature called App Clips, which will be launching in its iOS 14 software update coming in the fall.

App Clips lets you access certain features (or “clips”) of apps without having to download and install them. The idea is to make it possible to scan a code on a parking metre, for example, to pay from your phone immediately without having to download a corresponding app to do so.

It’s not a direct comparison to WeChat, since App Clips run on the iOS operating system, not within a specific app. But it still builds on the idea of using your phone to accomplish tasks in the real world – an idea that WeChat popularised.

Google also launched a now-defunct messaging app in 2016 called Allo, which had the Google Assistant built in so that you could ask questions and perform tasks like booking a restaurant reservation without having to leave a chat thread. In late 2018,Google announced that it had stopped supporting Allo to focus on its Messages app for Android. The app also stirred some controversy when it initially launched in 2016 over concerns about Google storing chat logs.

Despite these pivots, it’s clear that WeChat proved messaging apps could be useful for so more than just communication, sparking a new (albeit short-lived) arms race among American tech giants.

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