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Jan 09, 2017

The world’s largest mobile messaging platform, WeChat, has finally unveiled its long-anticipated “Little Apps” feature — at least to those who are persistent enough to find it.

The new feature aims to strike a middle ground between websites and dedicated apps, between ease of use and storage space. The Little Apps will be faster than websites, whose content takes time to download, and also more streamlined than stand-alone apps, taking up less space on users’ phones while still serving many of the same functions. WeChat’s 800 million monthly users first got wind of Little Apps in September 2016, when the company invited select developers to play around with the messaging service’s newest function.

QQ News, owned by WeChat’s parent company Tencent, reported that the Little Apps feature became available early Monday morning. Users can either scan a QR code with their phones or search for Little Apps in Chinese (“xiao chengxu”) to access the feature.

Lu Xiaoming, a columnist for 36Kr, an online news outlet focusing on startups and technology, wrote that Android users seemed to be enjoying greater functionality and ease of use than iOS users. Lu reported that Android users, for example, could freely navigate between Little Apps and chat windows, while iOS users who navigated away from a Little App to chat with their friends were often asked to log in again upon returning to the Little App — a mild headache for Apple fans.

“Apple has 20 percent of the market share in China,” wrote Lu. “Will Zhang Xiaolong [the creator of WeChat] ignore these users’ needs? And will Apple open the door to this new function that looks strikingly similar to its own App Store? Only time will tell.”

He Chuan, CEO of Socket College, an online forum for young entrepreneurs, shifted the focus from competition with international rivals to those closer to home — specifically, to China’s two other internet heavyweights, Alibaba and Baidu. “It won’t be long before other big players like Alibaba and Baidu debut their own Little App platforms,” wrote He.

Apple and Google, meanwhile, have already released updates to their Messages app and Chrome web browser, respectively, that offer their own versions of the mini-app experience, and though mobile payment platform Alipay — WeChat’s Alibaba-owned competitor — declined to comment for He’s article, it, too, has apps-within-apps that allow users to order food, play games, call taxis, pay bills, and even request a variety of services from enterprising fellow users.

A WeChat representative surnamed Chen told Sixth Tone that more Little Apps will become available to the public as they pass the company’s verification criteria. Regarding the user experience discrepancies from different devices, Chen said, “Android and iOS are two different systems, and as such they have different rules and capabilities for running the Little Apps.”

Left: A screenshot of WeChat’s demo ‘Little App’ shows an English-language menu on a Chinese phone. Right: A screenshot from WeChat shows several ‘Little Apps’ currently available.

On Chinese social media, reviews of the Little Apps user interface and the demo app of the same name — parts of which are inexplicably in English — have been mixed.

Referring to one of the Little Apps currently available, Weibo microblogger “IMBootyMan” wrote, “WeChat just added a web browser, bragging as if this is a big deal — but actually it kind of sucks.” Another Weibo user complained about the difficulty of finding new Little Apps to try out, writing: “The search function is awful! You can’t get the right result if you leave out even a single word.”

Other Weibo users, however, were more positive, with one calling the innovation “a useful feature, especially for people whose phones don’t have much internal storage.” Still others recognized the feature’s potential in spite of its early-stage flaws: “It’s really nice, and you can easily navigate between windows. Because [Little Apps] is still very new, it doesn’t have much functionality yet, so I’m definitely looking forward to improvements in the future.”

A final group of users were more equivocal in their reviews of WeChat’s newest function — largely because they could not figure out how to access it. “I just updated my WeChat to the newest version, and I still can’t find it!” wrote one frustrated user.

Additional reporting by Dong Heng.

(Header image: A mobile phone user points to the ‘Little Apps’ icon within the WeChat app. IC)