This week, China’s most downloaded app wasn’t a game or a short-video app like normal but a new messaging service called Bullet. The app’s startling assent to the top marks a rare challenge to Tencent’s WeChat—China’s go-to choice for messaging.
Bullet, so called for the swiftness of its service, specializes in instant voice messaging, whereby users communicate through a rally of short audio clips. That method hasn’t caught on in the West, but in China, it’s the norm.
WeChat popularized that style of communication during its early days, in 2012, but its system has always been comparably limited. For one, WeChat only allows voice messages to be played in full, so if a listener misses a vital word towards the end of a clip, they have to start over from the beginning. Also, sending audio files makes it harder to scan through previous messages and check what’s already been said, in case you’ve forgotten an important detail.
Bullet has smartly solved both of these problems. Firstly, it allows users to scrub through audio files and start playback at any point—a simple enough fix that it’s surprising WeChat hasn’t introduced this function itself. (Scrubbing through voice messages is even a feature on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which introduced voice messages after WeChat did.)
Bullet’s second solution is more impressive, but also not inimitable. The app instantly transcribes audio into a text message and sends the text along with the voice clip, leaving a visible record of the conversation. That magic is powered by iFlyTek, a local AI translation wizard that MIT Technology Review ranked as the “smartest company” in China last year.
WeChat has a transcription feature, too, but the user has to choose to transcribe each message. Bullet has streamlined the process and generally provides a greater user experience, which is something you would expect of the messaging app’s key investor, Smartisan.
Smartisan (a portmanteau of “smart” and “artisan”) was founded in 2012 by Luo Yonghao, a former English teacher at New York-listed New Oriental. Luo gathered popularity online for his humorous classes, but he gained notoriety in 2011 for smashing Siemens refrigerators outside of the German brand’s Beijing headquarters. The demonstration was a protest of what Luo believed was Siemens’ shoddy design.
But Smartisan doesn’t make fridges, it makes smartphones. Sales might be slight—accounting for just 1% of the Chinese smartphone market in 2017—but the company has an ardent following. In May this year, 23,000 fans flocked to the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, home of the 2008 Summer Olympics, to attend the launch of the phone maker’s R1 model, paying up to $140 for entry. According to Guinness World Records, which Luo had invited to witness the spectacle, it was the “largest audience for a technology product launch” to date.
Luo has stated that Bullet is not an attempt to topple Tencent. Writing on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, Luo said, “We are not challenging WeChat. We are creating a niche product for people who care about the efficiency of communication.” But Bullet, which was launched on August 20, has already diversified its service beyond messaging.
The app runs a news feed, which is similar in design to that of multi-billion-dollar news aggregator, Toutiao. The newsfeed featured content skimmed from Tencent News until, unsurprisingly, Tencent told Bullet to stop. Luo has also hinted that the app will soon include payment services provided by Alipay, Tencent’s arch-rival in the mobile payments war.
But Alipay hasn’t suggested it would form an official partnership with Bullet. Ant Financial, the Alibaba affiliate that manages Alipay, has simply said, “Alipay welcomes all eligible businesses to incorporate Alipay solutions into their products and services.” It hasn’t suggested Bullet will feature within the Alipay app, where it would be the most effective as a weapon against WeChat.
Without a rich ecosystem of services to pad it out, Bullet’s app is unlikely to divert followers away from WeChat. The upstart’s key selling points are all based on user experience, which can be easily emulated. For now, Bullet is just a shot across the bow, providing WeChat with an incentive—and perhaps a guide—to improve its own audio messaging service.