A string of Chinese tech startups and bigger firms, which are well-known for nimbly copying trendy products, are exploring the possibility of building a clone of the popular audio chat app Clubhouse. Some early entrants have already launched their own versions, among them livestreaming service Ink’s Duihuaba, smartphone maker Xiaomi’s resurrected messaging app Miliao, and financial data platform Jingdata’s Capital Coffee. The competition is on its heels, but which one could be the next hit, and will the model work in China?
Although Clubhouse doesn’t involve ground-breaking technology, its air of exclusivity, easy-to-use interface, the coexistence of high-quality conversations and casual chats, as well as the participation of celebrities and elites makes it a hit in the social media sector.
“Function-wise, Clubhouse is particularly simple and follows the principle of ‘less is more,’ but it is able to give users ‘a sense of flatness’, they are able to join discussions equally,” said Alex Shen, the founder of a social app named Hezhang and an early Chinese Clubhouse user. “Additionally, its subscription mechanism, based on whom you follow, is exactly not algorithm-oriented, which is sort of running against the current trend.”
The buzzy audio chat app swept Silicon Valley and enjoyed a brief period of hyper-popularity in China before it was blocked out of the Great Firewall on February 8. During its brief window of availability in the country, the invite-only app, which requires a non-mainland Apple ID to download, attracted Chinese to “raise hands” in rooms, drifting through topic ranging from the tech industry, virtual open mic concerts, to political debates involving Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, some of which are strictly censored in the Chinese cyberspace.
While voice-based social networking has been existing in China for years—albeit in different forms—the hype around Clubhouse has inspired some to revisit this field. Smartphone maker Xiaomi’s (HKG: 1810) messaging app Miliao, once a WeChat rival, made a comeback only one week after it announced that it will end operations after 10 years, on February 19.
On the revamped web page of Miliao, it says that “the new Miliao is a voice chat app for professionals.” One can hear people in various industries share their insights and participate, as well as create topics of interest and converse with friends and peers. The app is currently invite-only and under testing. A representative of Xiaomi declined to comment on the progress when asked by KrASIA.
Duihuaba, which means “Let’s Talk”, was developed by Hong Kong-listed livestreaming firm Inke (HKG: 3700) and is available since February 11 on both Android and Apple app stores. Inke followed Clubhouse’s suit, inviting some industry leaders, including its founder Feng Yousheng, GSR Ventures’ chief Zhu Xiaohu, and Beijing Kunlun’s chairman Zhou Yahui, to have a one-hour talk over “will there be a Chinese version of Clubhouse.”
However, the company later removed the app from the stores, saying that “the product is being improved and upgraded.”
Jingdata, a financial market data platform, which was previously owned by 36Kr (NASDAQ: KRKR), on February 21 released Capital Coffee, targeting a similar audience. Yet, it is still in testing mode and not yet available on app stores.
A WeChat mini-program that looks identical to Clubhouse, named “Clubhorse,” developed by Beijing-based startup Weimi Chuangxiang, was blocked by WeChat for “alleged copyright infringement,” and never heard of again. Tech bigwigs like Tencent and Alibaba are reportedly working on similar products, and existing apps such as Juju, Dizhua, and audio platform Lizhi’s Tiya drew attention too.
Again, privacy concerns
“Compared to texts, voice-based interactions bring more realness and trust to people, so digging in this sector is definitely promising, although developers have to find a way to counteract the disadvantages of audio chats, for example, it’s not always efficient,” said Shen.
Speaking of the heated competition, he thinks that the trend of copying other products, as a result of scarce innovation in China, will lead to “internal friction.” Deep-pocketed big companies may have the money to squander, but for the smaller ones, the cost of making mistakes is too high, he said.
Meanwhile, big questions are surrounding Clubhouse itself. After a round of hype and excitement, some users have lost interest in the app. And from a business standpoint, the question arises how it intends to make money and keep its high-quality moderators engaged?
Also, its policies and community guidelines are still in the making. Some of the rules are vague and not exactly privacy-friendly. Users are required to hand over access to their iPhone contacts, and although conversations are ephemeral, the platform is able to record them. Therefore, again, the problem comes down to figuring out a balance between privacy protection and the use of data to refine user experience and further support the business. Whether the saga of Clubhouse can last remains to be seen.