Xiaochengxu — which translates as mini programs — challenges Apple founder Steve Jobs’ idea of an app store overseen by the maker of the iPhone, the device which marked its 10th anniversary this week.
App stores run by Apple and Google generate billions of dollars in revenue globally and for them China is a key target market as its users rely heavily on their phones for daily tasks ranging from grocery shopping to booking nail appointments.
WeChat’s parent company Tencent Holdings said yesterday that the function allows users to access merchants’ services without having to download their apps.
These would in the past have been downloaded via app stores run by Apple or local companies such as 360 and Tencent’s own platform for Android apps.
Tencent said it had seen an “encouraging response” from merchants including Didi Chuxing, Dianping. com, Meituan.com, 58.com, JD, as well as airlines, travel agencies, and hotels.
Tencent is not the first company to develop an in-app downloading platform.
Chinese internet giant Baidu launched a similar platform in 2013 which it called Light App.
“The quality of the content will decide if the user will adopt it massively and drop their current app store, which I don’t think they will do,” said Alexis Bonhomme, co-founder of CuriosityChina, a Beijing-based marketing agency specialising in helping brands market on WeChat.
Earlier this month, Apple said app sales in China jumped 90% in 2016.
In 2015, Reuters reported that Google, whose services are banned in China, has been looking to relaunch its Google Play app store in the country.
The WeChat plan has garnered a mixed response on social media from Chinese users. “I don’t feel like it’s of much use,” wrote one Weibo user.
Since it launched in 2011, WeChat has become China’s most popular mobile social media platform.
Its users can send text, audio, and video message for free, as well as a combination of Facebook, Instagram, and ApplePay functions within the app.