Bottom line: Weibo and its stock could remain under pressure for some time to come, potentially a long time if its new Oasis platform doesn’t provide the kind of relief that it is hoping for.
With corporate earnings in the spotlight, I’ve decided to zoom in this week on the Twitter-like Weibo (Nasdaq: WB), following the release of its quarterly results a week ago. As a long-time China tech watcher, I particularly like Weibo for its ability to reinvent itself, and like to think of it as “The little company that could, then couldn’t, then could again, then couldn’t” and so on.
Hopefully I’m not dating myself with that reference to the American childhood classic “The Little Engine That Could,” about a train that overcomes various obstacles to show the world its true abilities. But the bottom line is that Weibo has reinvented itself at least once in its brief lifetime that began with a bang a decade ago. It’s currently trying to do that again with a new soon-to-launch product called Oasis, which I’ll examine more closely in the second half of this column. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: WeChat’s growing hubris, reflected by increasingly aggressive content filtering, could open the door to a more user-friendly competitor.
These days the following exchange seems to happen with growing frequency at companies around China.
Person 1, yelling across the office: “Did anyone see my message about [insert name of any random subject]?”
Colleague, yelling back: “Uh, don’t think we saw that one. Maybe it was blocked.”
Many in China will probably recognize what I’m talking about, but for those outside perhaps a bit more explanation is needed. The above dialogues are all talking about messages being blocked on the hugely popular WeChat instant messaging platform, which has become an integral part of most people’s social and work lives in China these last five or six years.
As readers can probably guess from the above dialogue, WeChat has become more aggressive over the past year in filtering its content for sensitive words. The service is hardly alone in such practice, since China’s cyber security law says all website and app operators must police themselves for and remove such content.
But when you talk about this kind of self-policing, it’s really up to the individual websites and apps to decide what to look for and remove. In WeChat’s case, it seems like the company has gotten lazy lately and begun filtering a growing number of keywords and topics, often without any obvious sensitive content. The result is that you often send a message or file and wait patiently for a response, only to later learn the post was never received by the intended recipients.
Rather than delve into the politics of what’s happening at WeChat, which declined to comment on its filtering policies, I want to focus the rest of this column on a more business-related topic that could have huge implications for WeChat and its parent, Tencent(HKEx: 700). The topic revolves around a basic question: Could WeChat’s recent policies turn off large numbers of its more than 1 billion users, and open the door for another more user-friendly rival?
To answer that question, I did one of my unscientific polls, putting a set of questions to my 2,000-plus friends and contacts on the very WeChat service that’s the subject of this column. The results were quite revealing, and seem to indicate that people aren’t quite ready to abandon WeChat just yet. But it could just be a matter of time if things keep up at their current pace.
More on that soon. But first I’ll quickly summarize WeChat’s current status to give people outside China a sense of how ubiquitous it has become in many people’s daily lives, mine included. I previously wrote about how entrenched WeChat has become as a work tool for many, providing convenient and cheap ways to hold all kinds of group and individual chats and calls over a wide range of distances.
Many people also use the platform these days for a big chunk of their online social interaction, including written and voice communications and group sharing through its Moments function that is similar to Facebook’s newsfeed.
And the survey says …
With all that background in mind, we’ll spend the second half of this column looking at my survey results and what they might say about whether WeChat’s filtering ways could provide a business opportunity for a smart rival app operator. My polling query returned 13 meaningful results, covering a wide range of industries that seemed somewhat representative.
Of the 13, seven said they had noticed the increased filtering and were frustrated by it. Three of those were from the media due to my own leanings, with others coming from such industries as education, international trade and other services. That does seem relatively significant, since it shows there’s a bit of discontent out there that a savvy alternate service provider could feed upon.
Most people who noticed the increased filtering said they were seeing it mainly in group chats, though one or two said they were seeing it in one-on-one messages as well. That said, no respondents said they were considering switching to other platforms as a result of their frustration. I would agree that at this point WeChat is so entrenched in my daily work and social routines that things would either have to get even worse, or an obviously better alternative would have to spring up for me to consider switching.
I particularly liked one response from a former student. She noted the change has been happening gradually over the last year and a half, and likened it to “using warm water to boil a frog” — in other words, a form of torture that’s so slow you may not even notice until it’s too late.
WeChat has certainly faced its challengers over the years, though in each case it fended off the competition with relative ease. One of the earliest assaults came from mobile giant China Mobile (HKEx: 941; NYSE: CHL), which accused WeChat of effectively being a rival network operator. E-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) would later try to mount a challenge with its Laiwang service, which ended in failure.
So far I haven’t downloaded any of these apps, mostly because WeChat was providing me with perfectly good service at the time. But this latest behavior by WeChat is showing just how companies can abuse their position when they become near monopolies. Accordingly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a new rival emerge in the next year — possibly quite suddenly — if WeChat continues in its current ways.
Bottom line: Tencent’s WeGame could stand a 50-50 chance of success in moving abroad, since the company already has a proven track record in games and will face relatively low privacy protection concerns due to the less-sensitive nature of gaming.
Despite their huge success at home, none of China’s big Internet companies has ever scored a major victory outside its home market, despite a number of low-profile attempts. Social networking giant Tencent (HKEx: 700) is about to become the latest to take a stab at the market, with word that the company will soon launch an international edition of its gaming platform called WeGame.
There are a number of reasons why Chinese Internet companies have yet to really crack any major foreign markets, underscoring the uphill battle Tencent will face. The largest is probably well-established competition in most places, both from local players as well as global giants like Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). The second biggest element is probably trust, since many foreigners are a bit suspicious of these Chinese companies and their ability to protect customer privacy. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: Alibaba’s move into unmanned coffee shops could stand a strong chance of success due to its relative simplicity, while WeChat’s move into Hong Kong convenience stores should also be relatively well received.
Convenience stores are shaping up as the next battlefield in the wars for supremacy between Internet titans Alibaba(NYSE: BABA) and Tencent (HKEx: 700), at least based on the latest headlines. One of those has Alibaba preparing to roll out an unmanned coffee store concept in its hometown of Hangzhou, while the other has Tencent’s WeChat rolling into Hong Kong in a big way in a new tie-up with 7-Eleven convenience stores.
Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) probably doesn’t need to be too worried just yet about the new threat from Alibaba in coffee shops, though many of the dozens of smaller coffee chains that have set up shop in China these last few years might take note. Likewise, Hong Kong’s incumbent electronic payments service, Octopus, probably doesn’t need to worry just yet either. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: Yum’s purchase of a high-end take-out delivery service looks smart in targeting a higher margin, niche product in the competitive space, while McDonald’s and Starbuck’s rapid growth in mobile payments reflects rapid growth of the technology.
Three of the world’s top restaurant chain operators are in the China headlines as we head into summer, in different moves that reflect their attempts to tap into the nation’s growing love affair with high-tech dining. The most interesting of the headlines has Yum Brands (NYSE: YUM), parent of the KFC and Pizza Hut chains, buying up one of China’s oldest take-out delivery services, hinting at a potential big push into the ultra competitive space. The other two headlines have McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD) and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) independently releasing new data that show just how hot electronic payments have become for both companies.
As someone living here in China, I have to admit I have completely embraced the country’s homegrown brand of mobile electronic payments, which has quickly become dominated by Ant Financial’s Alipay and Tencent’s (HKEx: 700) WeChat. But at the same time, I’ll also openly admit I’ve eschewed the home delivery services that are also all the rage in China, though the tide seems to be fading as people rediscover the fun of actually going out to eat. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: This year is likely to see at least a half dozen privately owned financial services companies make public listings in the U.S., Hong Kong and China, with Lakala and Lufax likely to be among the first.
We’re already three months into the new year, and still awaiting the first of what looks set to be a bumper crop of IPOs by a new generation of privately owned financial services firms that are far more dynamic than their state-run peers. Two more of those are in the headlines today, led by China Rapid Finance, a peer-to-peer (P2P) lender that says it’s eyeing a $100 million IPO in New York. At the same time, the popular Lakala electronic payments service has filed to make a listing on the Nasdaq-style ChiNext board in Shenzhen.
That pair are joining a few other notable names that are reportedly aiming to list in the not-too-distant future. That group includes Lufax, which bills itself as China’s largest P2P lender and is aiming to list in Hong Kong. Then there’s Qudian, a microlender that is looking to raise hundreds of millions of dollars with a New York listing. And of course, the granddaddy of them all is Ant Financial, which could raise more than $1 billion with a listing in Hong Kong or dual listing in Hong Kong and China. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: iQiyi won’t make an IPO next year even though Baidu would like to get the company off its books, while Renren’s privatization marks one of the last buyouts for a US-listed Chinese firm from a wave dating back to last year.
The year 2016 is winding down as an unmemorable one for Chinese IPOs, thanks to a rocky start that cast a chill over the entire space. That said, the new year could be a bit more lively, amid signs that China’s securities regulator is opening the gates a bit wider to new offerings. That signal could bode well for offshore listings as well, with word that loss-making online video site iQiyi, controlled by online search leader Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU), is contemplating such an offering next year. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: Starbucks’ selection of WeChat before Alipay for in-store electronic payments is a symbolic victory for the former, while Alipay’s aggressive global expansion could eventually help it to overtake UnionPay outside China.
China’s two leading mobile payments services are both in the headlines, led by word of a major new tie-up between Tencent’s (HKEx: 700) WeChat and coffee lifestyle titan Starbucks (NYSE: SBUX). I have to admit that my interest in this particular tie-up is somewhat personal, as I’m a big fan of both of these companies and have been waiting a long time for such a partnership.
But equally significant is the fact that Starbucks chose WeChat before archrival Alipay. That same Alipay is in a couple of its own headlines, both showing how it’s trying to expand abroad to compete with China’s other major electronic payments system, the state-owned UnionPay. One of those headlines has Alipay in a new tie-up in Australia, while the other has it announcing partnerships with four major financial companies to expand its footprint in Europe. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: Meituan should be able to eventually monetize the vast audience for its selfie app, but may have to settle for a valuation below the $5 billion it wants for its IPO due to shorter-term investor skepticism.
Plans for a Hong Kong listing by selfie app Meitu are steaming ahead, but are also drawing some differing opinions from different sides of the East-West border. It seems Chinese fans of the app that lets users enhance photos of themselves to show their best face have quite a high opinion of this local beauty, believing it could be worth up to $5 billion. But westerners are a tad more skeptical, noting that Meitu now derives most of its money from smartphone sales rather than from anything directly related to the app. Read Full Post…
Bottom line: UnionPay’s announcement that its cards are usable at nearly all US ATMs shows it is targeting local US customers, while stiff competition will limit the success of new Xiaomi and Huawei e-payment services.
It’s been a busy week for Chinese companies in the electronic payments headlines, with 3 major names making big moves in the space. Leading the pack is industry stalwart UnionPay, China’s equivalent of MasterCard (NYSE: MA) and Visa (NYSE: V), which is saying its own credit cards are now accepted by an impressive 80 percent of US merchants. The other headlines are coming from smartphone makers Huawei and Xiaomi, which have announced roll-outs for China-based electronic payment services that will compete with other similar products from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Samsung (Seoul: 005930). Read Full Post…
The following press releases and news reports about China companies were carried on August 18. To view a full article or story, click on the link next to the headline.
Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU), Ford (NYSE: F) Invest $150 Mln in Radar Tech Firm Velodyne (Chinese article)