If you’ve been to China, one of the most striking cultural differences is how the Chinese use their phones. Kids, millennials, businessmen, and grannies alike—everyone in China seems to be talking into their mobile 24/7. Why is that? What’s going on in the Chinese tech world that isn’t happening in the West? The answer may surprise you: it has to do with the Internet of Things, and the “super app” WeChat.
We’ve heard lots about the benefits of living in a world enmeshed with objects that collect data, run algorithms, and optimize time. But the Internet of Things stills seems like a far-off mirage— besides the occasional acquaintance that has Alexa, or colleague that brags about his smarthome, of course. But in China, the promised land is quite near indeed. First of all, most everyone in China really is on their phones all the time. Sure, we all have friends in the West completely absorbed in Instagram, or who Tweet like their lives depend on it—but in China, mobile usage is next-level: there are 600+ million smartphone users, almost double the population of the United States! So it makes sense, then, that mobile usage has developed a level of comfort with using connected devices higher than in the West: for example, AliPay (a Chinese PayPal competitor) has a QR-based payment system that puts Apple or Samsung Pay to shame. Interacting digitally with physical objects and places is part of everyday life in China.
An app to end all apps
The key to this kind of integration is certainly the platform. It’s impossible not to mention WeChat. China’s ban of popular Western apps (think Facebook, Google, Uber, Yelp, Tinder) created the perfect environment for the rise of an all-in-one platform. Don’t let the name fool you: on WeChat, you can not only chat, but share photos, order food, hail taxis, do banking, book appointments, pay bills, read articles, rent a room, plan your route, find a date, play games… the list goes on and on. See it for yourself! For a country that manufactures 95% of all IoT devices, that means that these functions are embedded in China in a very real way: here, pulling up messages on your bathroom mirror while simultaneously changing your thermostat is not just the opening montage of a sci-fi movie. “Life in the People’s Republic of WeChat,” written by Dune Lawrence back in 2016, is an impressive account of the splendors of this super app.
The West doesn’t look like that yet. Why? For one, China’s mind-boggling population density and teeming urban centers make the Internet of Things not only more plausible but more necessary. The sheer number of people trying to do any one thing makes any tech-enabled efficiency extremely worthwhile, and Chinese innovators have taken notice: Chinese IoT startups are piggybacking off WeChat in a big way. In China, there’s no app-store domination by Amazon, Google, and Facebook, but instead a space for this kind of development.
Crossing the Ocean
The seamless integration we wanted from our virtual assistants already exists in China. Siri and Alexa can murmur all they want in their lovely computerized voices, but the truth is, we have a lot to learn from the frictionless popularity of WeChat. This super app should be a role model for our chatbots and smart speakers. Clearly, China has a starkly different culture from the West. But we can’t pretend that their adoption of technology isn’t a guide for how we can integrate new technology into our lives. After all, we can all see that there’s no use for smart devices without connectivity, regardless of cultural background. Seamless is seamless; it doesn’t matter where you live.
We do a lot of talking about the Internet of Things, but where does it actually exist? Let’s take a look at how China is stepping toward a seamless world thanks tech innovation including the WeChat superapp.
Internet of things, IoT, China, weChat, startups, applications, platform,
The Internet of Things has taken root in China in a big way, thanks to WeChat: a swiss-army-knife platform built to connect everyone and everything, everywhere.