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Telegram starts to look like a super app, echoing WeChat

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Telegram logo behind silhouette of person checking a mobile device
Image Credits: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Telegram, the popular messaging app with 800 million monthly active users worldwide, is inching closer to adopting an ecosystem strategy that is reminiscent of WeChat’s super app approach. Certain aspects of the ecosystem will be decentralized with help from two heavyweights: Telegram’s crypto partner TON Foundation and WeChat’s owner Tencent.

Telegram has been working on a platform where third-party developers, from games to restaurants, can build mini apps to interact with users. In Telegram’s own words: “Developers can use JavaScript to create infinitely flexible interfaces that can be launched right inside Telegram — and can completely replace any website.”

To build out this super app platform, Telegram relies on a network of infrastructure partners both from the established tech world and the crypto space. Among them is The Open Network (TON) Foundation, which lays the blockchain groundwork for Telegram but operates as an independent organization.

This week, TON Foundation announced that it’s forged a partnership with Tencent Cloud, which has “already successfully supported TON validators and plans to expand its services further to help meet TON’s high compute intensity and network bandwidth needs.” Validators, in web3 lingo, are participants that help authenticate transactions in a blockchain network.

“For example, Telegram games built on TON can benefit from Tencent Cloud’s enriched gaming solution and reference cases,” the announcement says. “For all projects built on TON, Tencent Cloud will offer, subject to approval, a dedicated amount of cloud credits and product discounts, made available through the Tencent Cloud Startup Program.”

Amid slowing growth in China’s tech industry, Tencent has been stepping up its overseas expansion efforts. In recent months, its cloud computing business has been popping up at tech conventions, including crypto conferences. Tencent could potentially reap great rewards from the partnership if Telegram’s mini-app marketplace takes off like its Chinese counterpart.

WeChat has pioneered the mini app model in China and now powers millions of them serving functions from payments, food delivery, e-commerce, and ride-hailing, to driver’s license renewal, just to name a few. With a decentralized payments network, Telegram’s mini-app ecosystem has the potential to reach an even broader spectrum of users around the world.

Learning from WeChat’s playbook

Even though Tencent Cloud won’t be TON’s exclusive cloud provider according to TechCrunch’s knowledge, it appears that the partners stand to gain from their synergies.

“Given the similarities between WeChat mini apps and Telegram mini apps, we believe that mini app developers from WeChat who are currently using Tencent’s cloud service will begin to build on TON,” Justin Hyun, head of growth at TON Foundation, told TechCrunch.

It’s unclear how many developers building for WeChat’s China users are able to capture the diverse needs of Telegram’s international community. Creators of mobile games might have the most transferrable skills, given many of them are already marketing in overseas markets. Given Telegram is blocked in China, many developers will have to familiarize themselves with the app before they can devise meaningful applications for the platform.

The developers would also need to learn the programming languages of blockchain apps, which might actually be an easier barrier to overcome than the process of understanding the economic incentives that facilitate decentralized applications.

A partnership with Tencent, however, could offer insights into enticing people to use a messenger for a whole array of other purposes. Importantly, payment functionality played a critical role in WeChat’s early rise as it instilled a habit among users to make daily transactions through the chat app.

While WeChat makes its in-house payments system the default option and turned it into a cash cow for Tencent, Telegram has integrated with 20 payments solutions and takes no commission through its Bot Payments API. Aside from mature solutions like Google Pay or Apple Pay, Telegram also recently welcomed a self-custodial wallet that is independently developed by The Open Platform (TOP) using the TON blockchain. Having a crypto wallet can potentially bring a wide range of transaction scenarios to regions where centralized online payments aren’t available.

It will be fascinating to witness what lessons Telegram and TON take from WeChat and how a mini-app platform with a decentralized twist unfolds.

Telegram adds self-custodial crypto wallet worldwide, excluding the US

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