China’s WeChat is the latest to get Snap-like ‘Stories’

WeChat, the Chinese messaging giant with more than 1 billion monthly active users around the world, just added a Snap-like ephemeral video feature as part of its biggest overhaul since 2014.

The revamp comes as Tencent, which owns stakes in Snap, sees increasing rivalry from up-and-comers like video app TikTok and news app Jinri Toutiao. WeChat has, over the years, morphed beyond a straight-up messenger to include many utility purposes. With more than 1 million lightweight apps up and running, users can accomplish a long list of tasks, ranging from shopping to ride-hailing, without ever having to leave WeChat.

Meanwhile, some have expressed frustration over WeChat’s core as a social app. Moments, a feature akin to Facebook News Feed, was once a haven for close friends to share articles, photos and videos. But newsfeed content became blander over time as people’s contact list grew to include their bosses and their local fruit seller who needs to be added as a friend to process WeChat payments.

WeChat founder Allen Zhang is known for his obsession with user experience and has been cautious with tweaks, so a major redesign to the super app is effectively a guidebook for where WeChat is headed for the next few years.

The new off-the-cuff video feature, aptly named “Time Capsule,” is one of WeChat’s more noticeable updates. In the past, users shared videos to three main destinations: A friend, a group chat or Moments. This route remains unchanged, but with Time Capsule, users also can upload videos of up to 15 seconds that disappear after 24 hours, similar to how Snap Stories and its slew of clones, including Instagram Stories, work. Meanwhile, Snap also has drawn inspiration from Chinese apps in a recent redesign.

A blue ring will appear near the profile of those who have recorded an instant story. Screenshot by TechCrunch

Different from Instagram, which recently started allowing users to share Stories to close friends, WeChat doesn’t let users share Time Capsule videos to friends yet. Instead of lining up all the instant videos at the top of the app as Instagram does, WeChat is asking users to find them in less conspicuous ways: On Moments, in a group chat or in one’s starred friend list, a blue ring will appear near the profile of those who have recorded instant stories.

These secret entry points mean users are prompted to watch videos of those they know well, as they rarely click on the profile of, say, a fruit vendor.

Time Capsule is also a step up from WeChat’s old video sharing tool, with additional features such as locations and music, functions that are ubiquitous in TikTok and other short-form video apps. Users also can react to Time Capsule videos by blowing virtual “bubbles,” whereas the old video format doesn’t allow such interaction.

Time Capsule is a step up from WeChat’s old video sharing tool, with additional features such as locations and music. Screenshot by TechCrunch

While Time Capsule is not necessarily a direct challenger to TikTok — a product of the world’s most valuable startup ByteDance — it enriches the video experience for users who want to give close friends a window into their life. TikTok, by comparison, delivers content by relying on artificial intelligence to read users’ past habits rather than studying their social graphs.

That said, WeChat has shown signs to catch up with TikTok by rolling out a dozen video apps this year. While Tencent blocks TikTok videos from being shared to WeChat, its own proprietary video app Weishi gets preferential treatment. When users choose to record a video on WeChat, there’s an option to record it via Weishi. But Tencent’s short video fleet has a long way to go before they reach TikTok’s global dominance of 500 million monthly active users.

Another WeChat update also appears as a response to a popular ByteDance app. While WeChat users could show appreciation for an article by clicking on a “like” button, there was no effective way in the past to know what their friends enjoyed. The revamped WeChat now lets people see all the articles their friends have liked under one single stream called “Wow.”

That’s a feature that ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao news app cannot rival, as Wow is built on billions of users who know each other, unlike Jinri Toutiao, which relies on AI personalization like its sibling TikTok. WeChat is already colossal and can never please every user, but its new move shows that it’s paying close attention to whoever that may steal its users’ eyeball time away.

Tencent is launching its own version of Snap Spectacles

Some were surprised to see Snap release a second version of its “face-camera” Spectacles gadget, since the original version failed to convert hype into sales.

But those lackluster sales — which dropped to as low as 42,000 per quarter — didn’t only fail to dissuade the U.S. social firm from making more specs, because now Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and Snap investor, has launched its own take on the genre.

Tencent this week unveiled its answer to the video-recording sunglasses, which, you’ll notice, bear a striking resemblance to Snap’s Spectacles.

Called the Weishi smartglasses, Tencent’s wearable camera sports a lens in the front corner that allows users to film from a first-person perspective. Thankfully, the Chinese gaming and social giant has not made the mistake of Snap’s first-generation Spectacles, which highlighted the camera with a conspicuous yellow ring.

Tencent, which is best known for operating China’s massively popular WeChat messenger, has been an investor in Snap for some time after backing it long before it went public. But, when others have criticized the company and its share price struggled, Tencent doubled down. It snapped up an additional 12 percent stake one year ago and it is said to have offered counsel to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on product strategy. We don’t know, however, if the two sides’ discussions have ever covered Spectacles and thus inspired this new Tencent take on then.

The purpose behind Tencent’s new gadget is implicit in its name. Weishi, which means “micro videos” in Chinese, is also the name of the short-video sharing app that Tencent has been aggressively promoting in recent months to catch up with market dominators TikTok and Kuaishou .

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, is part of the entertainment ecosystem that Beijing-based ByteDance is building. ByteDance also runs the popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao and is poised to overtake Uber as the world’s most-valued tech startup when it closes its mega $3 billion funding round.

Weishi’s other potential rival Kuaishou is, interestingly, backed by Tencent. Kuaishou launched its own video-taking sunglasses in July.

Alongside the smart sunglasses, Tencent has also rolled out a GoPro-like action camera that links to the Weishi app. Time will tell whether the gadgets will catch on and get more people to post on Weishi.

Snap Spectacles V1 (top) and V2

The spectacles will go on sale November 11, a date that coincides with Singles Day, the annual shopping spree run by Tencent’s close rival Alibaba. Tencent does not make the gadget itself and instead has teamed up with Shenzhen-based Tonot, a manufacturer that claims to make “trendy” video-taking glasses. Tonot has also worked with Japan’s Line chat app on camera glasses.

“There isn’t really a demand for video-recording glasses,” says Mi Zou, a Beijing-based entrepreneur working on an AI selfie app. That’s because smartglasses are “not offering that much more to consumers than smartphones do,” she argues. Plus, a lot of people on apps like Douyin and Kuaishou love to take selfies, a need that smartglasses fail to fulfill.

“Tencent will have to work on its marketing. It could perhaps learn a few things from the Apple Watch, which successfully touts a geeky product as a fashionable accessory,” suggests Mi, who points out Snap Spectacles’ so-far dim reception.

Weishi had not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update this story with any additional information should the company provide it.