Tencent's WeChat has launched a suite of cloud-based smartphone apps as part of a new platform called Mini Program. This appears to be a collection of cloud-based apps anyone can access without downloading them.
In such a system, if you don't have enough storage space on your smartphone, a situation many iPhone users grapple with, you no longer need to worry about deleting your favourite apps. Mini Program apps will be available within WeChat, which does make it appear as if this is a parallel marketplace for apps.
WeChat has avoided calling this an app store presumably to avoid breaching Apple's terms of service. A WeChat representative told The Wall Street Journal that the company has "maintained regular dialogue with Apple" while developing Mini Program.
Apple doesn't allow third-party app stores on iOS or within apps that run on the platform. That makes WeChat's Mini Program an exception to the rule if one looks at cloud apps as third-party apps. However, Tencent, the company behind WeChat, claims that it doesn't have a central location to distribute apps unlike the App Store on iOS. To find Mini Programs, users will have to scan QR codes or discover them via search results. These apps work a bit like iMessage apps that provide minor but handy utilities.
MacRumors reports that Tencent Chairman Pony Ma wrote on his WeChat account in September, as Mini Program began beta testing. "Apple won't let us call it App Accounts, which might turn out to be a good thing."
The biggest appeal for Mini Program is the fact that you don't need space on your smartphone to use the apps. For people who already use WeChat, which is the most popular chat app in China, this could be a game changer even if it may be a while before developers adopts the platform. WeChat has, over the years, added plenty of features such as the ability to pay bills, buy flight tickets, and check news. These have helped make Tencent China's most valuable company. Mini Program could take these features one step further.
The App Store is central to Apple's revenue stream and as the iPhone reaches more people, that is only going to play a bigger role. On New Year's Day alone, Apple announced that its customers made purchases worth $240 million. It'll be interesting to see how Apple deals with cloud apps if more players start offering them.