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The Chinese “app factory” behind the global rise of TikTok

ByteDance
Reuters
“A borderless app factory.”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Although most often described as “the Chinese owner of TikTok” globally, ByteDance has another nickname in China: “app factory.” Since its inception in 2012, the company has created an ever-expanding app universe that now has at least 21 products, ranging from a very popular news aggregator to productivity management tools.

Together these apps account for 1.5 billion monthly active users, the company says, and about 700 million daily active users. Nearly half of those are for Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, while its other apps divvy up the remaining users in China and overseas with offerings that range from more video streaming apps to news content and industry-specific platforms.

“ByteDance has shown us what a real internationalized internet company would look like. The company’s real strength comes from its position as a borderless app factory,” said Geng Chen, an analyst with China’s Hua Chuang Securities in a report on ByteDance (link in Chinese) last month. “The strategy of ByteDance is to keep trying to expand into new areas at a very low cost. When the company spots a trend, it develops a number of apps in that area and sees which one gets to survive till the end.”

Here’s a look at the apps developed by ByteDance, as well as those it has acquired or invested in.

Content platforms

Almost a third of Bytedance’s apps relate to news aggregation.

Toutiao

The success of ByteDance began with the rise of Toutiao, which is now the biggest news aggregator in China. Founded in August 2012, shortly after the founding of ByteDance itself, Toutiao means “headlines.” With its powerful recommendation algorithms, the app amassed over 260 million monthly active users as of June 2019, according to Ocean Insights, a data analytics firm under ByteDance.

On average, each of its 120 million daily active users opens the app 12 times per day, according to the firm. The app itself does not produce original news but grabs content from media partners, as well as those from so-called “self-published media”: individual users who produce news content and analysis. Thanks to its powerful analysis of user’s information ranging from their location to the type of devices they use, it manages to push customized news headlines catering to vastly different tastes. Building on the success of its news aggregation feature, Toutiao rolled out Wei Toutiao, which means “mini headlines,” a social media function in 2017, allowing users to post original content and interact with others on the app.

The success of Toutiao has pitted ByteDance into a pitched battle with social media and gaming giant Tencent, parent of the WeChat messaging app, another popular source of news from both publications and self-published authors. The rivalry has taken the form of a number of tit-for-tat lawsuits spanning allegations from copyright violations to defamation.

Wukong Wenda

The app started off as a Q&A site embedded in Toutiao in 2016 and quickly took off, with over 10,000 questions posted (link in Chinese) on the platform by March 2017, and more than 100,000 answers added every day. Taking note of its strong growth, ByteDance spun the feature out from Toutiao that year. To grab users from its strongest rival, Chinese Q&A app Zhihu, the app reportedly lured some influencers who rose to fame with their answers on Zhihu, paying a high price for their content. However with over 220 million users, Zhihu has maintained its status over Wukong as the largest Chinese Q&A forum.

Pipixia

The app, which offers jokes, memes and funny videos, has a much better-known, and more controversial predecessor: Neihan Duanzi. Roughly translated as “vulgar jokes,”  Neihan was removed permanently by China’s internet regulator in early 2018 for its offering of, well, vulgar content. Gone with the removal of the app was also a loyal group of fans who found not only jokes, but also a sense of belonging through the app. In a bid to replicate the success of Neihan, which at its peak had over 11 million (link in Chinese) daily active users, ByteDance launched Pipixia only three months later. The app had over 6.2 million (link in Chinese) daily active users as of June 2019, according to Ocean Insights.

Dailyhunt

ByteDance owned around a fifth (paywall) of the news aggregator as of March last year, after it led a $25 million funding round in the app in 2016. Based in Bengaluru, the app is sort of an Indian version of Toutiao, also offering curated content using machine learning technologies to its users in 14 Indian languages. With over 188 million daily active users, the app is one of the biggest news aggregators in India.

Topbuzz

This English-language version of Toutiao is aimed at offering curated news from media partners and independent content creators to the overseas market. While ByteDance hopes the app can replicate the success of Toutiao in the US, it only recently started gaining traction, with 36 million monthly active users currently, compared with just 1.8 million in November 2017. The growth apparently is not enough for its ambitious owner, which reportedly was looking to sell the app last year. 

BaBe

Southeast Asia has been the focus for Chinese tech companies that are trying to hedge against slower economic growth at home. ByteDance is no exception. In 2016, the company became a controlling shareholder of BaBe (Baca Berita), an Indonesian news aggregator that claims to have had more than 30 million downloads as of 2019. 

News Republic

The acquisition of the app by ByteDance in 2017 continued its path in exploring opportunities in the news aggregation field. Taking a leaf out of the playbook of Toutiao, the app also offers customized news articles from over 2,500 of its media partners, such as CNN. Similar to Topbuzz, the app also has not gained much traction in the US. It ranked at 117 under the news and magazine section on the US iOS store as of Feb. 9, according to App Annie.

Short-video apps

Douyin

Douyin, which means “shaking sound,” was one of ByteDance’s first forays into short-form video. It was initially launched in 2016 as a lip-syncing app, but soon saw users posting videos of their daily lives or of memes. Similar to the success of its international version TikTok, Douyin has had a good run in China. The app says it had over 400 million daily active users as of January, helping it make up nearly 70% of China’s mobile social network users, according to marketing research firm eMarketer. Douyin and TikTok are two separate entities, although some metrics firms club their numbers.

The above-mentioned war between Tencent and ByteDance is also taking place on this battleground.

Xigua Video

Roughly translating as “Watermelon Video,” the 2016- launched app is positioned as a platform for “professional user generated content,” or higher quality content than other user generated apps. Compared with Douyin and TikTok users, who mostly create videos ranging from 15 to 60 seconds, Xigua gives users the opportunity to tell a longer story, with videos lasting around three to five minutes. Now with over 131 million monthly active users (link in Chinese), the app is deemed by some a mini version of Netflix, as its major attraction is content such as variety shows and TV series or films purchased from third parties. The app was ranked the fourth most downloaded free app on the China iOS store on Feb. 17, ahead of Douyin, which was ranked 13th, according to App Annie.

Douyin Huoshan 

Launched in the same year as Douyin, the app was originally named “Huoshan Xiaoshipin” and focuses on videos lasting only around 15 seconds. Although there is inevitably overlap between the app and Douyin in terms of content, Huoshan is aimed at attracting older users from smaller cities, while Douyin counts mostly young working professionals or university students in big cities as its users. ByteDance merged Huoshan with Douyin (link in Chinese) in early January, saying the two would continue to operate as independent entities but their content would be shared on each other’s platforms.

Vigo Video

(formerly Flipagram)

Having set its sights on overseas markets from early on, ByteDance acquired US-based Flipagram, a short-movie making app in 2017, the same year it bought lip-syncing app Musical.ly, which was later absorbed into TikTok. ByteDance rebranded the app as Vigo Video after the acquisition. Deemed the “overseas version of Huoshan Video” as the app also offers around 15-seconds long content, Vigo claims to have around 20 million monthly active users.

Helo

Available in 14 Indian languages including Hindi and Marathi, the India-based app offers users a wide range of short videos, jokes, and entertainment news. The launch of Helo by ByteDance in mid-2018 was seen as a bold move by the Chinese firm to challenge ShareChat, another hugely popular social media and entertainment app in India that has successfully wooed users with content in their own regional language. To better compete with ShareChat, Helo is reportedly introducing English content and aims to double its 50 million monthly active users by the end of last year.

Industry-specific 

Dongchedi

 

The Chinese app offers information on automobile prices and news, as well as short videos created by users who review the features of different cars. Similar to Toutiao, the app recommends curated content based on users’ interests.  

GoGoKid

The online tutoring platform offers English lessons by foreign teachers to Chinese children aged four to 12. The launch of GoGoKid in 2018 was seen as the company’s move to challenge the status of VipKid, a leading Chinese online education platform backed by Tencent. However, as China’s online education industry has struggled with high investment and lack of profits recently, GoGoKid laid off some of its employees last year in a bid to “stabilize the company and achieve higher efficiency.”

FaceU

The selfie app was acquired by ByteDance in early 2018 for $300 million. It differs from rivals by offering AR (augmented reality) technologies that allow users to edit their photos and videos with stickers and other photo-editing tools in real time while they are filming or taking photos and videos. The app is positioned as an important channel (link in Chinese) for directing traffic to other ByteDance apps such as Douyin, according to Chinese media coverage.

Lark (Feishu)

The enterprise messaging and collaboration platform was originally created by ByteDance to meet its internal work demands around 2016. The company started to use the app internally in late 2017, and gradually expanded its development team (link in Chinese) to around 500 people, according to Chinese media company 36Kr. Seeing potential commercialization opportunities in the app, ByteDance rolled out the app’s overseas version, Lark, in April 2019, and its Chinese version Feishu, which means “flying messages,” in September to compete with rivals like Alibaba’s corporate messaging app DingTalk and Tencent’s WeChat Work.