WeChat, the mobile messaging service from Chinese Internet giant Tencent, passed 300 million registered users yesterday, and a new beta version of the iOS app has hinted that Siri-like voice reminders and audio chatrooms are coming soon.
The folks at Chinese blog 36kr got their hands on the test version which includes these updates, and were pretty impressed with what they saw. Their test build of the app is the Chinese version (‘Weixin’) as opposed to the international incarnation (‘WeChat’), but either way these features are, as yet, unreleased for their service.
The voice reminder feature lets users enter a command just by speaking. It is then written out in full, appearing just like a chat message. Once stored, the app will ping a notification at the specified time, which is 9:21 in the screenshots below, reminding the users of the task at hand.
The feature can handle voice input for countdowns, e.g. ‘in one minute’, or more specific times, such as ‘tomorrow at 8:00 am’, which certainly sounds impressive.
36Kr says that the feature will opened up to developers soon. That would be an interesting move which would advance WeChat/Weixin from being merely a communications app, to one that takes a more central role on smartphones. Indeed, it could yet be one of a number of new features that extends the use of the app beyond keeping in touch with friends. Other rival apps are already offering games centers, social networking and other non-messaging features, pushing out behind their core offering.
This new feature brings near-real-time voice calling to chatrooms. Unlike group calls — which are offered at HD quality by rival Kakao Talk, among others — the WeChat feature is a continuous vocal chat, which allows new users to be added, existing users to leave, all while the audio conversation continues. That’s opposed to a call ending when the participants hang-up.
Voice chatroom users can be added via invite only and have the option to record short voice messages or participate in a group call, 36kr says.
Culturally speaking, the chatroom feature could prove popular in China and elsewhere in Asia where push-to-talk has seen far greater usage than Western markets. WeChat already offers video and voice calls, and the quality of the latter is particularly impressive. If that isn’t disruptive enough, the potential for multiple friends to hold a group call is likely to cause concern among mobile operators, many of which already feel chat apps are squeezing them for SMS and voice revenues.
The Chinese government recently paved the way for MVNO (virtual) operators in the country and rumor has it that Tencent is one company thought to be exploring the possibility. Operators in the country are said to be pressuring the firm to lessen the data burden that its hugely popular app is placing on their networks, particularly since they gain little remuneration from it.
While talk of a Tencent MVNO is speculative at best — though it has the capital and user base to make a go of it — we can be sure that the company will begin monetizing WeChat this year. Executives confirmed plans to integrate its Tenpay payment service into the app when speaking at the tail end of 2012, and that move will be yet further disruption to online and offline players.
Yesterday’s announcement of 300 million users also revealed that the company had added 100 million sign-ups in just four months. Given that it took six months to grow from 100 million to 200 million, the service is likely to continue to kick-on and grow its userbase both domestically and overseas.
Recent controversy around censorship of politically sensitive Chinese words — which Tencent put down to a “technical glitch” — has caused issue with many users over the security of their information. Tencent will need to tread carefully as it balances the censorship demands of China’s government with data privacy expectations.