Chinese telecom operators have long resented WeChat, the country’s top messaging app, for the pressure that its hundreds of millions of users place on their data networks and the lost revenue they incur. There have even been threats to charge for it. But now things just got a lot more serious after Tencent, the company behind the hit service, released a dedicated internet calling app for Chinese users (Dianhua), alongside an international version (Lighttalk) for those in the rest of the world.
WeChat, which known as Weixin in China, already lets users make free (VoIP) calls using WiFi or cellular data, but the apps take the feature — which is somewhat buried in the in-chat options draw — and builds it out into fully functional apps in their own right.
As well as calling friends for free — minus the cost of any data consumed — they include voicemail functionality, an address book, and it claims to support HD-quality voice calls. Dianhua requires a WeChat account — there are more than 400 million monthly active users — and imports contact profile photos from the Tencent service. It supports group SMS WeChat too.
Interestingly, Lighttalk doesn’t require a WeChat account. It offers to import contacts from your phone book or QQ, but strangely not from WeChat itself. That latter omission makes it largely useless for me, since I need to build my network of contacts using the app from scratch.
Beyond replacing regular calling, the app could further cement WeChat/Tencent’s efforts with retailers and brands. Many Chinese companies set up official accounts on WeChat to engage with consumers, and seems plausible that the VoIP app could eventually allow users to phone them (and retail brands in particular) directly.
For now , it is focused on connecting WeChat users, but it could also introduce Skype-like calling to allow users to phone regular mobile and landline numbers. Japanese rival Line made such a move earlier year.
China’s operators haven’t sat back and watched WeChat soar without making moves of their own. China Telecom teamed up with tech firm NetEase to launch its Yixin service last year, while China Mobile has a Skype-like service called Jego. Yet none of these initiatives have gained anything like the same traction as WeChat in China.
The folks at China Internet Watch tested the VoIP app out, and found the call quality to be at least on par with that offered by China’s three operators. Obviously it will depend on users and where they are located but, as they pointed out, the app should make the telecom industry in China particularly nervous.
Of course, this could also be a wake up call that prompts operators into partnering with WeChat to offer bundled services to customers. That something that has started to happen with some regional branches of China’s operators, and is commonplace in other parts of Asia.
Note: The original version of this article was updated to include details of Lighttalk, hat tip Technode for discovering it.