In episode 34 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma talk about the latest version of WeChat, which first came out on iOS the third week of December 2018, and on Android a few days later. It has been over four years since WeChat released an update this large, and since then, it’s added on over half a billion monthly active users. The latest updates included several widely expected features, namely, enhanced sharing of both video and content, which overlap with Bytedance’s core strengths — definitely not a coincidence. What’s the latest behind what is still arguably the most influential internet product of the past decade? And what has been the impact of WeChat’s founder on its product development?
Rui and Ying-Ying share that WeChat was created by Zhang Xiaolong, or Allen Zhang, who joined Tencent via the internet giant’s acquisition of Foxmail. He was originally tasked with heading up the Tencent R&D center and leading the QQ Mail team. As the now legendary — and publicly confirmed — story goes, Allen had a flash of insight, inspired by the traction the Canadian Kik Messenger had amassed in just 15 days. He sent a late-night email to Tencent CEO Pony Ma about the opportunity and the potential threat to existing Tencent products from this kind of mobile-based instant messaging. Pony agreed, and entrusted Allen to execute the release of Tencent’s own version. Just a few months later, Allen’s team released the WeChat version 1.0.
Our co-hosts explain that, though hard to imagine today, WeChat had an extremely rocky start and experienced several shaky periods during its growth. Looking back, it was by no means a sure-bet product from the beginning. Rui and Ying-Ying take listeners on a journey through the app’s turbulent history, through its various version iterations, and up to the present day. Throughout, they explain the impact of Allen Zhang’s ethos: Our co-hosts argue that he is an artist and a philosopher at heart who cares more about the user experience than about business metrics. How have these values shaped WeChat’s most recently stated primary missions: to be a great tool for the users it serves, and to constantly evolve and change in order to do so?
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