Alibaba is accustomed to spectacular growth stories and it is enjoying another one with the stellar rise of its office software app Ding Ding this year. Accelerated by the coronavirus crisis, active daily users jumped sixfold over the first two months of the year.
The online office apps, which support group communications, such as voice and video calls, as well as file-sharing, are another hotspot in the war between China’s tech giants. Active daily users on Ding Ding rose from 26.1 million on January 1 to 150 million by February 21. In second place is WeChat Work with 13.74 million active daily users, followed by Bytedance’s Feishu (a product known as Lark overseas) on 250,000. Huawei’s recently launched WeLink is bringing up the rear on 183,000.
Not everyone is pleased by the rapid uptake of Ding Ding’s services. After Alibaba expanded the app to support livestreamed classes and online testing a number of school children in Wuhan bombarded review sites with one-star ratings in the hope that they could knock it down the league tables. Ding Ding pleaded with them to stop. “I’m only five years old myself. Please don’t try to kill me,” it begged.
The bigger battle, of course, is among the leading tech players: for instance, Tencent has closed its ecosystem to its rivals’ offerings by blocking both Ding Ding and Feishu on its ubiquitous WeChat messaging service.
The blockade began when Bytedance launched a stand-alone video conferencing app called Feishu Conference in late February. WeChat users soon discovered that Feishu links were blocked. A few days later Ding Ding’s users started receiving the same treatment. When users of the DingTalk chat app tried to invite WeChat friends to conference calls they discovered they were no longer able to do so.
Tencent subsequently put out a statement claiming that other apps had been “inappropriately” taking advantage of WeChat’s relationship chain and “posed a threat to the privacy and security of WeChat users”.
Netizens are divided about whether this is a valid line of defence. Some see it as an abuse of WeChat’s monopoly position in the messaging market, where it boasts over 1 billion users.
Others say that Tencent has every right to protect its own position. “Tencent is a commercial company so it’s under no obligation to facilitate its competitors’ products,” Zhang Yi, CEO of iResearch, told SC.stock.com. He also believes that competition between the three main players will benefit users by encouraging product innovation and ease of use.
The Qianzhan Industry Research Institute estimates that China’s ‘enterprise collaboration’ industry could grow by a 12.4% compound annual growth rate to Rmb49 billion ($7.04 billion) by 2024. Locking customers into virtual office ecosystems early in the process makes a lot of sense because of the hassle factor of moving large amounts of data from one system to another.
This inconvenience means that users are likely to be ‘sticky’: hence all three office app providers have been scrambling to take advantage of the disruption created by the virus with offers of free use of their video conferencing facilities until the epidemic ends.
Users are also likely to be more productive thanks to one of Ding Ding’s features: employee tracking. China’s often hierarchical office culture means that companies have been keen to track their employees through the app’s clocking in and clocking out functionality. Naturally, staff aren’t quite as pleased by the feature. Ding messages can also be sent to employees not only in the app, but via automated phone calls and text messages. Managers can monitor the response through read/unread status updates. One user told Quartz that DingTalk is a “modern day shackle used by management to treat employees like slaves”.
Meanwhile a Tencent survey has revealed that Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai are the most popular cities for usage of its WeChat video-conferencing app. The survey showed that the provinces of Qinhai, Hainan and Jilin have the lowest uptake while video calls in Gansu and Xinjiang last the shortest amount of time.
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