The chances are that, if you live outside of China, you may heard of Tencent, but what about QQ, its instant messaging (IM) product? I chance that you’re far less familiar with the service.

Well you shouldn’t be, it’s used by millions (nay, hundreds of millions) of Chinese Internet users and is one of the most widely adopted Web services. Tencent itself is one of the world’s top Internet firms — with Q1 2012 revenues in excess of $1.5 billion — and QQ is very much its stand-out product.

And here’s the proof in that pudding, Tencent has introduced ‘I’m QQ‘, a page that shows how many people are using the IM service in real-time. It also indicates exactly where these users are based, giving a fascinating snapshot into where folks are logging on and QQ’s largest pockets of activity.

About half an hour ago, I was seeing 158,274,490 (although it changes every second).

qq users 520x371 Think Skype is big? Go see how many people are using Tencents QQ right now

At that time, my Skype counter was at 27,943,823 – though admittedly many in Europe are (should) be asleep and therefore not on the service right now.

skype2 Think Skype is big? Go see how many people are using Tencents QQ right now

For the record, Tencent’s record for concurrent QQ users is reportedly 167 million, Skype’s recently set best is 40 million, up from 35 million.

It may not be entirely fair to compare the two — as QQ has a far greater presence online, among other things — but since Skype is one of the main Web contact services in the West and elsewhere, the comparison has considerable basis.

QQ is the kind of service that Google would love Google+ to be. It is present across all of Tencent’s Web and (many) mobile services — including its games platform, microblog, etc — connecting Chinese Internet users in a way that goes beyond any reach that Skype and other global messaging companies enjoy.

The firm says it has more than 700 million users in China (which only hit 500 million Web users in January), and it has reached that significant figure thanks to support for mobile and establishing the service early on. Equally, Skype has far more competitors and began on a far smaller scale.

That’s in contrast to Google, which has coped flak for promoting its new social network by integrating it into its popular services and search engines long after they became de facto for many Web users.

Tencent is making efforts to take QQ and its other messaging services overseas, initially to Southeast Asia — and Indonesia in particular — but the lion’s share of users will remain in China, baring something incredible.

More than being just another Chinese Web firm, the company has a presence in Silicon Valley and its recent deals have included investment in Epic Games.

The company recently reorganised its business in a bid to prioritise its focuses, which include mobile, retail and overseas expansion efforts. Tencent has just tied up two of its ecommerce investments following the merger between FTuan and Gaopoeng, its joint venture with Groupon, but it has still reportedly set aside $1 billion to develop its online retail business.

That alone demonstrates that its money is as real as its user base.

➤ I’m QQ

Image via Flickr / Jornny Liu