11 July 2020 | By DF
- Smartphones have emerged as and likely will remain the most important computing platform for the foreseeable future. Mini-apps, as an emerging paradigm of mobile computing, is a space worth watching.
- WeChat’s Mini-Programs has proved the success of mini-apps and have inspired a host of imitators.Unlike other imitators, Apple’s App Clip has come closest to capturing the underlying philosophy of WeChat’s Mini-Programs: tool-first, “easy come, easy go”, online-to-offline (O2O) integration.
- The success of any given company’s attempt to implement mini-apps depends on the degree of “product-company fit”. Tencent and Alibaba have found such a fit, whereas other imitators thus far have not. Will Apple?
- Apple’s App Clip is likely to be differentiated on the basis of software-hardware integration, whose impact on the mini-app user experience remains to be seen.
- Extrapolating current technological trends, the possibilities enabled by mini-apps will enlarge in the future. This will reduce the role of native apps and is a threat to Apple’s toll-bridge App Store business model.
- App Clip is best understood as a defensive measure to forestall in the rest of the world the rise of other WeChat-like cross-platform Mini-Programs that further empower themselves at the expense of iOS as a platform.
If good artists copy and great artists steal, Apple is certainly a great artist.
During the recent online-only WWDC, Apple's App Clip announcement prompted me to Tweet about how App Clip drew inspiration from WeChat’s Mini-Program:
I noted that App Clip is similar to WeChat’s Mini-Program in (1) using QR code for discovery and (2) integrating its own identity and digital payment services. (Left is Apple’s “visually beautiful and distinct” App Clip. Right is WeChat’s Mini-Program QR code.)
I further predicted that App Clip—as an iOS-exclusive feature—is unlikely to fare well in China against cross-platform Mini-Program by Chinese BigTechCos unless there are App Clip-only APIs that enables a significantly differentiated user experience.
Upon further research, I discovered that Apple is only the latest in a long line of WeChat’s Mini-Programs imitators. But Apple’s App Clip has come closest to capturing the underlying philosophy of Mini-Programs. These imitators are:
- Other Mini-Programs: after WeChat proved the viability of Mini-Programs, other Chinese technology companies followed quickly. Of these, only Alipay has achieved a success of comparable scale.
- Google Play Instant: Google has previously rolled out the conceptually similar Android Instant Apps back in May 2017, which has since been re-branded as Google Play Instant. Its lack of mindshare (in contrast to, say, WeChat’s Mini-Program) speaks to the extent of its success.
- Quick App (快应用): the Android-only, China-only alternative to Google Play Instant and Mini Programs formed by a consortium of Chinese smartphone manufacturers in March 2018. The provenance of Quick App should be enough to raise eyebrows.