New WeChat “Mini-Apps”, No Download Required

The Father of WeChat, Zhang Xiao Long, caused some excitement when he posted about new WeChat “mini-apps” in his Moments feed yesterday:

What are mini apps? Mini apps are a type of app that you can immediately use without having to install anything, it acheives the dream of apps "at your fingertips", users scan a QR code or search and can immediately open an app. Recognizing that so many apps are used once and then abandoned, users will now no longer have to worry about installing too many apps. Apps will be everywhere, ready to use at any time, but you won't have to download and install them.

What are mini-apps? Mini-apps are a type of app that you can immediately use without having to install anything, it achieves the dream of apps “at your fingertips”, users scan a QR code or search and can immediately open an app. Recognizing that so many apps are used once and then abandoned, users will now no longer have to worry about installing too many apps. Apps will be everywhere, ready to use at any time, but you won’t have to download and install them.

Mini-Apps are currently in private beta

The “WeChat Open Class” Official Account (WeChat ID: wx-gongkaike) followed up with an announcement overnight on these new “mini-apps” (小程序), writing that these are the “app accounts” (应用号) that were announced by the WeChat team in January this year and that they are now open for internal testing. Below is our translation of the question and answer section from their article:

Q: I’m a developer, I haven’t received an invitation yet to test mini-apps, what channels do I have to apply?

A: Currently, mini-apps are in private beta. When the platform opens to the public, most individuals, businesses, government, media, and other organizations will be able to apply and register a mini app.

Q: Some accounts have already received an invitation to private beta testing, will WeChat continue to invite developers?

A: Regarding the roll out of mini apps, at this time access is by invitation only, and the beta apps are not visible to users in WeChat. After the beta period is over, all mini-apps will be opened to users at the same time.

Q: Can mini-apps connect to an existing app?

A: Mini-apps can use WeChat login and an app’s existing backend user management, but users will not be able to directly jump between app and mini app.

Q: WeChat already has subscription accounts, service accounts, and enterprise accounts. How are mini-apps different than the current three types of official accounts?

A: Mini-apps, subscription accounts, service accounts, and enterprise accounts are currently “parallel systems”. [Editor’s note: Well that clears everything up!]

Q: There are rumors that mini-apps are intended to be a new type of app store, a new method of app distribution. Is this true?

A: WeChat is not launching mini-apps because they want to create a new app store. The intent is to create an open platform for delivering high quality services.

The initial test users are supposed to keep quiet about the details, but Jason Ng of KeNengBa (可能吧, WeChat ID: knbknb) did put out a post making a few observations.

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According to Jason the developer documentation for mini-apps is the most detailed and thorough of any WeChat documentation he has seen. In addition to the documentation, WeChat also provides developer tools for Mac, Windows, and Linux. Mini-apps will go through a review process, similar to an app store, before being published.

Mini-App Capabilities and Interfaces

Another post by WeChat Official Account TechWeb broke the secrecy and listed all the available javascript capabilities, interfaces, and API features:

View Container: View, scroll, swiper

Basic Elements: Icons, text, progress bars

Form Elements: Buttons, check boxes, forms, radio buttons, sliders, etc.

Media Tools: Audio, images, video

Network: Upload/download files, Websockets

Data: data caching

User location: get location, view location

Device data: Network status, system information, accelerometer, compass

WeChat Open Platform Interface: Login, authentication, basic user profile, WeChat Pay, template messages

User Interfaces: Navigation, Map, Html5 canvas drawing tools, file editor

There’s still a lot of unknowns around the new mini-apps. Are mini apps a new account type? Did they change the name from “app accounts” to “mini-apps” to designate that this functionality will exist alongside an Official Account? Will Service Accounts be the only account type that can use mini-apps???

The concept and design of mini apps sound a bit similar to the Android Instant Apps that Google announced in May this year:

“How do we make it possible for people to access a wider range of apps, seamlessly? How do we help developers reach more people? And how do we do that while giving developers access to the range of capabilities and experiences that Android apps provide?

 

Today we’re sharing a preview of a new project that we think will change how people experience Android apps. We call it Android Instant Apps, and it evolves Android apps to be able to run instantly, without requiring installation. With Instant Apps, a tap on a URL can open right in an Android app, even if the user doesn’t have that app installed.”

Peering into WeChat’s Crystal Ball

Mini-apps will likely extend WeChat’s already powerful reach into offline-to-online experience via more extensible uses for QR codes. Currently in China we use WeChat QR codes mainly to add/follow accounts and to pay. With mini-apps we will be able to launch an app with a QR code, so if I’m waiting in line at say, Starbucks, I can scan a code in WeChat to launch an html5 ordering app, pay, and get my loyalty rewards points with only a couple clicks.

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Previous versions of WeChat gave access to third-party “apps”

At a higher level, mini-apps look likely to make third-party functionality more independent of Official Accounts and provide a path for apps to really be everywhere. More speculatively, this could be the first step in making apps accessible in one-to-one and group chats again. WeChat used to allow users to add apps to their “+” menu options in WeChat [see image above]. Tencent-invested POI directory Dianping (大众点评), for example, used to have privileged place here a few years back until the feature was removed. Watch this space.