Who has the largest online community in China? Most people would probably think it's either Alibaba (largest e-commerce company) or Baidu (online search and marketing). But both of these Chinese powerhouses aren’t even close to Tencent’s social messaging app WeChat and this is a key development worth following because the company is re-engineering the way China uses mobile at the potential expense of the iPhone and Android.

Usage leads to rebirth of the QR code

The growth numbers for WeChat are startling. One of Tencent’s executives quoted 846 million active users at a venture capital event in San Francisco last week which, if correct, easily dwarfs Baidu (660 million users) and Alibaba (493 million).

Even the most conservative estimates have WeChat at well over 700 million in 2016, a growth rate of nearly 30 percent year-over-year.

What’s driving WeChat’s phenomenal growth rate is a deep understanding of the mobile user in China and an aggressive business plan that capitalizes on simplifying technology to make the user experience easier. This has included widespread use of the QR barcode, that “ancient” 2D symbol which enables WeChat users to seamlessly communicate with each other. Speaking at Silicon Dragon’s tech forum in San Francisco last week, Eagle Yi, WeChat’s director of business development, told attendees that over 80 million of their users scan a code every day. “We’ve revived the QR code,” said Yi.

In addition, WeChat has courted users with partnerships that expand the smartphone platform itself. Calvin Klein saw a 50% increase in sales volume when they launched a campaign around the Chinese New Year in 2016 that allowed mobile users to post a photo of themselves on one of several giant outdoor screens in China. By scanning a QR code and then uploading a photo, WeChat users received a prize for redemption at a nearby Calvin Klein store.

WeChat is also branching into the language learning space. At the tech forum in San Francisco last week, attendees heard a presentation from Luke Priddy, the co-founder of Yoli, who described how his company built a language learning app inside the WeChat platform. Users are connected with teachers on demand for a quick 15 minute “class” to improve their English language skills.

“We’re opening up an entire universe of content on WeChat,” said Priddy, who described how lessons can be stored and then reviewed again. “This has not been done anywhere.”

New mini programs could disrupt industry

Perhaps the most interesting move by the social messaging service has been the development of “mini programs” inside the WeChat app. Launched this month, these programs can be used immediately, without the need for downloading, installation, or registration. As popular as smartphone apps have become, they still take time to boot, can chew up limited data, and often require irritating passwords or payment information to access.

WeChat’s solution is to bypass all of that entirely. Mini programs are generated from the cloud so there’s nothing to download, yet they are easily accessed from the phone’s home screen.

And when a user wants to purchase something, the WeChat wallet does the rest.

According to Tencent, Chinese programmers like the mini program approach because it requires less resources and development time to launch. If WeChat’s new approach takes off, the importance of an “app store” on the Android or iOS platform becomes meaningless, a development that could force Google and Apple to dramatically re-think their smartphone model.

At the Silicon Dragon forum last week, speakers surveyed the audience to see how many used various technologies. A few hands were raised for virtual reality headsets such as the HTC Vive and Microsoft’s HoloLens. When asked how many in attendance used WeChat, nearly every hand shot up and this was in San Francisco, not China. The smartphone industry might be in for new disruption as evidenced by one social messaging app with 800 million users and growing.