Platform innovation or walled gardens. How I felt economically disconnected in China

So it has been several days since I returned from China. I visit cities in China once or twice a year as China is growing so rapidly in economic importance. Every year, I see huge change and this year was the same.

This year, I noticed for the first time the inroads that WeChat has made into everyday life in China. Much has been written about how the banning of Facebook and Twitter gave Chinese social media platforms such as wechat and weibo the space to grow to the point where even if Facebook and Twitter were allowed into CHina, no one would sign up with them because everyone in China is on Wechat. But this ignores the fact that wechat has not just copied its Western counterparts but created new innovations at a faster speed.

A good example is payments through wechat. Many restaurants that I visited asked me if I could pay my bill through wechat instead of using a credit card. And when I went to my favourite Chinese bookstore to buy some books for my daughter, they were so disappointed that I didn’t have the wechat wallet because they would have given me a 50% discount on my purchases.

Now I am a very happy user of Apple Pay which is also available in China. But wechat payments are so popular that the reaction of many in China to Apple Pay, or Samsung Pay was a collective shrug and a meh?

But my own observation is that the user experience of wechat payments isn’t actually better than mobile payments through Apple Pay etc. A customer has to use his or her mobile phone to scan a QR code at the counter, which would then bring you into a message box within wechat and you then type in the payment amount. The person behind the counter then has to verify that you had actually paid the correct amount and many times I have seen the customer having to hand over the mobile phone over the counter for verification. In the case of Apple Pay, it is just a simple tap while you put your finger on the home button.

But then again, perhaps it is not the quality of the user experience that is important at this stage, but the level of adoption. Given how pervasive wechat is in daily Chinese life (you can send money to your friends, pay for almost everything, order a ride share etc), that even a superior user experience would not lead to an adoption switch. Moreover, wechat is hardware agnostic whereas Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay are only available on selected handsets.

Maybe it is time for me to set up a wechat wallet before my next trip to China.

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