The Post-App Era: Are we there yet?

The growth of digital business models has been fueled by mobile apps. However, as more and more apps became available, an increasing resistance among smartphone users to downloading them has been observed (app fatigue), especially for services that are not frequently used. It is not clear whether the native apps or their respective app stores offer an appropriate development strategy for this kind of services. In China, the social messaging platform WeChat, has created a new novel way of letting users access apps by embedding lightweight micro-apps. These so called Mini-Programs (MPs) allow third-party developers to create lightweight apps within WeChat’s infrastructure. This allows them to create an entire ecosystem of apps within one app.

WeChat Mini Programs

Tencent, a tech giant, has created WeChat, China’s most widely used social media app. WeChat boasts over 1 billion users worldwide since its launch in 2011. It released Mini Programs in 2017 within the WeChat platform. Mini Programs are apps that run within the WeChat app. They can also be called sub-applications or mini apps. These apps can be accessed by using WeChat’s simple operations, such as scanning QR code or entering keywords in the search bar. Currently, WeChat has more than 1 million Mini Programs.

Mini Programs function and act in the same way as native apps. The key difference is that mini apps can be accessed through one entry point embedded within the WeChat app, rather than downloading them individually from app stores. The WeChat platform provides interface for apps.

For security and reliability, people used to only shop at a handful of large app stores. Mini Programs have opened up new avenues for people to access apps. Apple’s App store, which is the largest app store, provides a central place for apps to be showcased. Mini Programs, on the other hand, are not required to be downloaded or installed. These mini apps can be found within WeChat by simply clicking on the icons. Mini Programs are also available on the cloud, and don’t require any storage space. This contrasts with the traditional app store experience Mini Programs are instantly available for users and offer the unique experience of using apps within an app, rather than multiple installed apps.

Mini Programs also adress the cross-platform issue: since the OS doesn’t host mini apps, different operating system versions are not negatively impacting mini pograms. Native apps cannot be downloaded from conventional app stores due to compatibility restrictions. For example, to download a Bilibili app, a popular Chinese video platform, in Apple’s App Store, you need to run a certain iOS version. The only requirement for a “mini Bilibili” is WeChat, which can be used in any system, Android or iOS. Mini Programs are more compatible, faster and smaller than regular apps and allow for better interaction between users and their apps.

WeChat’s role is changing from being a messaging social network to an “app-store” social networking site. An app store is considered as online marketplace that allows developers to distribute and sell their products to others in multi-sided software platforms. Likewise, WeChat’s mini programs allow developers to launch and distribute apps to their users. This could be considered an “app-store experience”. Mini apps within WeChat can offer the same features as native apps, but in a smaller and more accessible format.

Are Mini Programs Harbringers of the Post-App Era?

The launch of Mini Programs has certaily opened new opportunities for the development of the app ecosystem. WeChat sucessfully illustrated how Apps themsevels become platforms for other apps. In this sense, Mini Programs are harbringers of the Post-App Era.

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