Thanks to the Great Firewall of China, an intricate network of filters and website-blockers, China has had to develop its own ecosystem of smartphone apps. China's insistence on government access to and control of apps has largely kept Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google off Chinese smartphones, leading to an entire industry of copycat apps that really only work in China. But now, say Johan Kessel and Paul Mazur at The New York Times, China "has become a guide to the future."
"It's almost as if the Chinese internet is a lagoon as an aside to the greater ocean of the internet," Kessel and Mazur explain in the video below. "And in that lagoon there are these swamp-monster apps that bear some resemblance to the creatures in the ocean, but are mutated in some ways because they evolved in a different kind of environment." For a long time, nobody outside China cared about these swamp monsters, but now, "some of the features they have developed are so amazing that Western apps are trying to copy them," they report.
In the video, Kessel and Mazur focus on WeChat, an online Swiss army knife app owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent. WeChat's 700 million users can chat, book appointments, hail a cab, pay bills, transfer money, make reservations, share photos, and so much more. Users essentially never have to leave the app. Tencent made a big push to take WeChat global in 2012, Mazur reports, but outside of China, WeChat was basically just a chat app, and it flopped. Now "we're starting to see a number of Western tech companies attempt to replicate super-apps like WeChat," which could bring a "convenient and even transformative technology" to the U.S. market. At the same time, Kessel and Mazur warn, giving so much user data to one company "could lay the groundwork for an Orwellian world where companies and governments can track every single movement you make." Is it worth it? Watch the video below to see WeChat in action. Peter Weber