What if Facebook’s long-term outlook is hindered by the fact that it began on computers and not on mobile phones? This is something you start to wonder when you look at three Asian companies that have, between them, nearly 400 million users. And they are still growing. The difference between them and the social networking giant we all know: they’re smartphone-centric, and focus more on conversations than relationships. Who are they?
WeChat was the first Chinese smartphone app to be adopted outside of the middle empire (where it’s called Weixin). Launched in 2011 by Tencent, China's largest online company, it had reached 200 million users by last September, doubling the total it had in March. The number includes users from Southeast Asia, the US and the UK. As The Guardian says, the app is “similar” to WhatsApp, but offers “many more” functionalities. It's true that the app has a bit of Twitter, a little Faceboook, some Instagram and Skype, as well as other services. It also allows people to send spoken messages like walkie-talkies.
Korea is dominated by Kakao Talk (Tencent owns 14%). It had 60 million users in September when I interviewed Yujin Sohn, vice president of global development. Its functionalities are similar to WeChat, but “we launched before they did, and can do everything they can,” Sohn says.
“On top of that, we do free calling, which they still don’t,” she continues. In all actuality, Korean companies should have a difficult time in the Chinese market, and vice versa. The two companies allied with each other, one providing the tech, the other providing the financial resources.
The third member of the trio is Line, a Japanese site created byKorea’s Next Human Network (NHN), formerly run by Kakao’s founder. So there are links between all three companies. In September, Line had 60 million users, nearly half ofJapan’s total population. Kakao Talk, on the other hand, has almost 90% penetration inKorea, according to Line executive officer Jun Masuda. Line now has over 94 million users.
According to Masuda, “The graphic interface and strategy are very similar, since we both come from the same company.”
Like Sohn, Masuda emphasizes the communication aspect. “We’re not a social network, we’re a messaging service,” Masuda says. “The messages are pretty short, which allows for rapid exchanges, like a real conversation.”
For Sohn, the biggest thing that differentiates them from Facebook is that “we were born on mobile.” For Masuda “the smartphone revolution gives us a chance to [spread] our messaging and communications services. The US has Facebook, but not a dominant messaging service. That’s why we’re focusing on the Asian market first before expanding.”
The difference might seem like a small one, but all three companies view it as an essential one. A more nuanced explanation is given by Yujin (Kate) Sohn: “Facebook is a social platform that has communication features, but we are a communication platform with social elements. That’s what smartphones are made for; computers weren’t, even if there’s a partial overlap. Facebook has trouble with mobile because it was built in an environment that isn’t centered on communication. We’re different, because we were born on different planets.”
WeChat and the others see an advantage there. They believe they can compete with Facebook one day.
This belief comes less because of their large Asian markets than the fact they were born on smartphones and they ask all new users for access to their address books. Networks built on existing relationships – like Facebook – tend to create a flat or static social graph, while those built on communication, and thus on real relationships, can create a dynamic graph, like real conversations do. The two models partially overlap, but the starting point – and therefore the end point – are entirely different.