The icon for the Tencent Holdings Ltd. WeChat messaging application is seen in this arranged photograph taken in Hong Kong. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

This Upstart Wants a Slice of WeChat's Billion Users

(Bloomberg) -- Call it David versus Goliath -- with emojis.

China’s dominant social network, WeChat, faces an upstart competitor that’s not only found a growing numbers of users, but also funding from investors and support from “techies.”

Bullet Message has reached 5 million users barely two weeks after its Aug. 20 debut. While that’s a rounding error compared to Tencent Holding Ltd.’s WeChat, which passed 1 billion users in March, interest in QuickAs Ltd.’s month-old app was enough to rank Bullet above WeChat in Apple Store downloads as of Sept. 4.

“A lot of my friends and I feel we’ve been kidnapped by WeChat for too long,” said Hu Yutong, a Tsinghua University student in Beijing who downloaded Bullet on the first day. “We are intrigued by this new service, despite there being flaws.”

WeChat has come to rule China’s smartphone world by becoming a one-stop platform with everything from group-video chatting to electronic payments and food delivery to a ride-hailing service. At the outset, Bullet is focusing on a few things it does well, including a voice-to-text option that its operator claims delivers real-time transcriptions in Mandarin with an accuracy rate of 97 percent.

QuickAs’s initial funding includes 150 million yuan ($22 million) from Gaorong Capital, Chengwei Capital and smartphone maker Smartisan Technology Co. That’s a far cry from Shenzhen-based Tencent, which has a market capitalization of $394 billion, and has long battled Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. for the crown as China’s most-valuable company.

“Bullet Message isn’t posing any real threat to WeChat at this stage,” said Shawn Yang, executive director of Blue Lotus Capital Advisors, a financial consulting company. Still, there are some similarities between Bullet and WeChat in its early days, with the upstart focusing on services that spotlight improved technology, such as “voice optimization” for transcription and translation.

Tencent has alienated some users by pushing too hard to monetize existing services that have gotten outdated, Yang said. WeChat “Moments,” where users post photos and comments about meals, styles and daily activities “have become less intriguing,” he said.

That somewhat echoes what’s occurred in the U.S. around Facebook Inc. and upstart Snapchat Inc., with the former considered stale among some younger users.

Snapchat has about 200 million users worldwide and Facebook’s WhatsApp message service about 1.5 billion. But both are among the many platforms blocked by China’s Great Firewall -- which means less competition for Bullet as well as WeChat.

QuickAs didn’t respond to emailed questions sent by Bloomberg. But co-founder Hao Xijie told Jiemian.com that he doesn’t consider Bullet a direct competitor to WeChat.

Perhaps -- but Tencent has taken note. Bullet’s original newsfeed relied on the larger company’s service. But that link was soon taken down.

Bullet’s voice-to-transcription offering -- developed by speech-recognition specialist Iflytek Co. -- is among the most-attractive features. It enables users with regional accents to instantly and fluently communicate in Mandarin without the button-pushing needed on WeChat. Although Mandarin is China’s official language, many of its 1.4 billion people speak regional dialects.

Not all Bullet functions are unique or cutting edge.

The platform has been criticized for the amount of available pornography. Others have expressed concerns over privacy terms and the security of user information, as Bullet allows anonymous participation on group chats.

“1st impression is that it’s full of porn and other stuff that’s blocked/too sensitive for WeChat,” Matthew Brennan at China Channel, a Shenzhen-based marketing agency, wrote in a Twitter message.

"Many social networking apps face similar issues, like Snapchat," said Blue Lotus’s Yang, "Bullet Message may not be the best alternative, but there might be something similar coming out in the near future, which is what WeChat should be worried about."

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Weiyi Qiu in Beijing at wqiu26@bloomberg.net

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Editorial Board