In a bar in Beijing or an underground rail carriage on the Shanghai Metro, the sight of WeChat, the addictive chat app developed by Tencent Holdings, is ubiquitous. But when you spy it over the shoulder of your neighbour on the Metro, chances are they are messaging colleagues rather than friends.
At almost every Chinese workplace, WeChat has become the primary means of communication. Conversations through WeChat group messages have replaced email, files can be shared in the app, and group voice calls can replace meetings.
But there are some big drawbacks: WeChat messages do not have the legal status of a written email, message history can be hard to access and the security of corporate information can be a concern.
Tencent has set out to fix this, with Enterprise WeChat. The app has all the usual chat features, plus some extras: employees can ask for time off, file expenses or even clock in to show they are at work. Security has been upgraded and companies must register before employees can use the service.
What Tencent is trying has echoes of Facebook at Work, a programme for workplace communication launched last year. Unlike Facebook, whose users mostly use the platform for personal communication, WeChat already had a big corporate user base before the app: it now needs to get them to move over to the updated version.
Once they do, Enterprise WeChat may help Tencent solve a different problem: how to make more money from WeChat, which despite having 700m users has never generated big profits.
Enterprise WeChat is free but that could change. Workplace chat apps in Silicon Valley have garnered some rich valuations (such as Slack, valued at $3.8bn) off the idea that companies will pay handsome subscription fees for their service.