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WeChat revolution: Mainland China's 'killer app' speaks to the masses

SHANGHAI -- When condom maker Durex wants to send an intimate message to customers in China, it uses a homegrown instant messaging platform called WeChat which has taken the country by storm in just three years.

WeChat — known as “weixin,” or micro-message in Chinese — has similarities to WhatsApp, the Silicon Valley start-up that Facebook bought for US$19 billion last month.

Now the CEO of its parent company hopes the service can go global, branding it China's “most hopeful product for internationalization” — but concerns about cybersecurity could hamper its ambitions.

WeChat is more versatile than WhatsApp, allowing its more than 300 million users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over smartphones, find each other by shaking their devices — a common dating technique — and even book and pay for taxis.

Its popularity has gone beyond individuals, with corporations and even the government using the application developed by Chinese Internet giant Tencent for their internal and public communications.

Since the WhatsApp deal was announced, Hong Kong-listed Tencent's shares have risen 9.4 percent, giving it a market capitalisation of US$150 billion, approaching Facebook's monumental US$180 billion.

“WeChat is an extremely people-friendly platform, something consumers frequently use every day,” said Fay Zhao, senior brand manager for Durex, which has asked its 200,000 followers to transmit “love stories” over WeChat in its latest campaign.

Analysts say WeChat has eroded the popularity of another form of Chinese social media — microblogs or “weibo,” the equivalent of Twitter — which have been hurt by a government crackdown on content and users.

WeChat is now the country's second most popular instant messaging tool on mobile devices, according to consultancy Analysys International — behind the venerable QQ platform, launched in 1999 and also owned by Tencent — and is unlikely to be dislodged.

“WeChat, as a 'killer app' of Tencent on mobile Internet, has experienced a rapid increase in its user base since it commercialised in 2013,” consultancy Analysys International said in a research report in February, referring to when it started charging for some services.

“Killer app” is technological terminology for a unique and wildly popular product.

WeChat is free to use, but charges for products such as emoticons and special features in games.

To retain users, WeChat has introduced new services alongside basic communication, including gaming, online payments and the taxi booking service.

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