While Amazon — like Alibaba and other Chinese retailers — is taking the staff out off shops, Tencent has been quietly doing something even more radical: taking customers (and their cash) out of app stores.
The Chinese tech conglomerate, with activities spanning gaming, payments and movies, launched its so-called mini-programmes a year ago. Essentially apps within apps, these let users hop from, say, shopping to hailing a taxi without switching apps. More importantly, without leaving Tencent's WeChat platform.
Fast forward a year, and WeChat's walled garden of apps has bloomed: from 100 at kick-off last January to 580,000. That gives WeChat's near-1bn monthly active users ample reason to bypass the app stores run by Google and Apple, which clips some 30 per cent of the revenue at the gate.
That changes the landscape in China, but it changes Tencent too: from a killer app factory to an operating system. It's a switch that Matthew Brennan, a long-time watcher of the company, clocked before, but which, he says, became clear at this month's WeChat confab.
What does it mean? It means that in China there is even less reason to be loyal to a brand of phone — they are WeChat users, not Android or Apple — and even more reason to spend more time on WeChat and more money via WeChat Pay, both on and offline.
What it does not mean is the death of official accounts, the business accounts of brands and governments. Mini apps boast 170m daily users, or 17 per cent of WeChat's total users. The half a million or so mini apps are likewise a fraction of the 20m-plus official accounts (of which 3.5m are active).
"It's a good start," says Mr Brennan. "The road map has a long way to go. There are many things they are going to roll out this year."
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