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Innovation

Shots Fired: Smartisan’s New “Bullet Messaging” App is Taking Aim at WeChat – and Just Topped the App Store’s Download Charts

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You’ve probably never heard of Smartisan. And that’s fine, there’s no particular reason you would have. But there are a couple of recent moves from the company that we feel make it worth putting their slightly smug portmanteau of a name on your radar, even if just as a small blip.

For one thing, their “bullet messaging” app Zidan Duanxin (子弹短信, literally “bullet messaging”) has just topped Apple’s China App Store download charts for free social programs, beating app titans Douyin and WeChat just one week after it was released. For another, they’ve also unveiled a new phone model that users control by “swiping their environment”. And yes, that is as ridiculous looking as it sounds.

Before we get to these two milestones, allow us a minor detour to let you know that Smartisan was founded by a man who first came to the Chinese public’s attention via his outspoken consumer rights pronouncements on his microblog account and by encouraging people to take a sledgehammer to a load of Siemens refrigerators:

Luo Yonghao’s understated, definitely-not-publicity-seeking stunt was supposedly a complaint about the quality of the products, but the key point is that when you’re as big a fan of spectacle as Luo, a phone that you operate by making grand, sweeping gestures is unlikely to fail any “yeah, but do people really want this?” tests.

And lo, we have the Nut Pro 2S. And it really is kinda nuts. We could describe it to you, but really, you have to see it in action:

To be honest, given that large swathes of China’s youth seem perfectly happy livestreaming every aspect of their lives and that even super rich tech bosses are willing to risk death to get the perfect selfie, we can actually see this being pretty popular.

It’s certainly piqued a lot of people’s curiosity, if not exactly translated into sales. But what’s really created buzz around Smartisan in the past couple of weeks is their “bullet messaging” app, developed together with start-up Kuairu. The program’s official blurb makes all kinds of claims such as “no more cumbersome messages” and “humanized interaction brings more efficiency”, which sound nice but in practical terms manifest in functions such as a “remind me later” organizer, the ability to send and receive messages outside of the app’s main interface, and a built-in integrated speech-to-text (automatic transcription) ability.

Bullet Messaging on the App Store

These features — likely together with a healthy amount of curiosity — have helped fire it to the top of the free download charts on Apple’s App Store in China.

Skeptics have argued that its popularity will be fleeting however. To paraphrase one commenter on Zhihu (China’s answer to Quora) put it: “when all your friends already have WeChat and QQ, why would you need this?” To be fair, Luo himself has offered similar musings (on microblogging service Weibo) and admitted that it’s unrealistic to get users to uninstall WeChat in favor of Bullet Messaging, but that the latter can help make communications more “efficient”.

It’s an interesting way of positioning the app given that one of WeChat’s apparent strengths has been its creation of an all-encompassing ecosystem to retain users within the app — Bullet Messaging attempts to simplify things again.

Related:

Why We Can’t #DeleteWeChat

Yet a rumored link up with Alipay to add payment options to the Bullet Messaging app (a rumor Luo himself effectively started) has a number of commentators wondering whether this really could put a dent in Tencent’s previously all-powerful app. Some investors have clearly wondered the same thing. In another one of Luo’s most recent headline-grabbing posts on microblog service Weibo, he talked of the app receiving 150 million RMB (around 22 million USD) in funding in its first week.

In PR terms at least, it’s something of a turnaround for a company that nearly went bust in 2016. Whether Bullet Messaging can really lodge itself in the affections of users once the initial wave of curiosity and publicity is over remains to be seen however. The harsh truth is that if any of the features that the Bullet Messaging app boasts really make an impact with users, they’re likely to be introduced on WeChat fairly quickly (an app which is always likely to slip down China’s download charts given nearly everyone in the country has it already).

Still, if it does all go pear-shaped, we can think of a good way for Luo to vent his frustration. Lock up your refrigerators….

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Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.