China’s booming WeChat app universe now includes a Google mini-app

Sketching away.
Sketching away.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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In its latest China overture, search giant Google announced Wednesday (July 18) on its Chinese blog (link in Chinese) it launched an applet called Caihua Xiaoge (猜画小歌) in China. But it’s not on Google Play—which isn’t even available in China.

Instead, it lives inside the app universe created within the ubiquitous messaging app WeChat, which has a billion users. Google product manager Chris Tam wrote in the post that the search giant’s first WeChat applet is meant to introduce users to a specific strand of AI—computer vision technology.

The applet, whose name means “Guess the Sketch” tells the user to draw simple object, such as a square or a piece of pizza, on his or her smartphone. The player can get points and advance the next round if the program can recognize the object within 20 seconds. If not, it’s game over.

The mini-program marks the latest step in Google’s tiptoe back into China’s consumer market, and comes after it last month invested $550 million into e-commerce company, which counts WeChat’s parent, social media and gaming giant Tencent, as an investor.

Google has a checkered past in China. The US company shut down its mainland Chinese search engine in 2010 due to concerns over censorship and cyberespionage, and has been largely invisible to consumers in China since. But over recent months, it’s made tiny overtures to them.

Now Google’s joining an endeavor that’s seen as a potential “app store killer,” competing with programs like, well, Google Play.

The mini-programs are basically apps that sit within a master app, and save users the hassle of installing, and exiting and entering different apps. Users can find specific applets by searching for them by name or scanning a QR code in WeChat. From within WeChat, it’s possible to rent a bicycle from Mobike, buy movie tickets from Maoyan, or shop on, without ever leaving WeChat.

According to the creator of WeChat (link in Chinese), Tencent executive Zhang Xiaolong , the in-app universe is a step towards an ever more intuitive iteration of the internet—whatever that might be. “What kind of form will it be after the mobile internet? It may be a device like glasses… the glasses would become very, very intelligent, and the entire PC or computer system may be hidden in a pair of glasses. What I hope more is that I don’t get instructions for installing an application, because it is very unnatural and inconvenient. I hope that my glasses will see where the relevant applications are,” said Zhang during a public speech earlier this year.

Tencent launched mini-programs in January last year (link in Chinese), and they already have over 200 million (pdf, page 14) users per day, according to a Chinese report released by a mini-program statistic platform