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Jack Ma Will Use Alibaba's Messaging App Even If No One Else Will

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma

Photograph by Liang Zhen/AP Photo

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma

As of today, the chairman of China’s biggest e-commerce company is no longer using China’s most popular mobile messaging app. Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma posted a message on WeChat, the app owned by rival Tencent (700:HK), on Tuesday, saying he was shutting down his account in three days.

Give Ma credit: In publicly dropping WeChat, he at least succeeded in drawing attention to one of his company’s more obscure services. With more than 200 million users, Tencent’s WeChat is to Alibaba’s alternative, Laiwang, what Google (GOOG) is to Bing (MSFT). Few Chinese users have seen a need to switch to an also-ran service that was late to the market, and, as of last month, there were only about 1 million Laiwang users, Alibaba told Bloomberg News. (The company wouldn’t comment on Ma’s decision to shut his WeChat account.)

In his farewell post on WeChat, Ma acknowledged the problem:

“Many people said to me this kid [Laiwang] doesn’t have any personality and wasn’t born at the right time. Even if he can grow up he won’t be as successful as his brother WeChat. We are aware of all those comments. We don’t expect this kid to be as successful as WeChat, but we hope that he will have more determination and personality and be more willing to learn. Today, he and his brother have a distance; but his goal is not to surpass his brother, but to create his own future.”

Can Ma save Laiwang from obscurity? The boss has ordered Alibaba employees to use and promote Laiwang, threatening to withhold some bonuses for those workers who don’t sufficiently promote the service. Unlike Microsoft’s search engine or, for that matter, Google Plus, Ma has a big advantage: Alibaba can leverage its big advantage as the owner of China’s largest online mall, Taobao. For instance, Alibaba could offer discounts to Taobao shoppers who use Laiwang.

Ma should also look to similar services, such as Kakao in Korea and Line in Japan, according to Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. “In terms of coming up with features, my guess is you can go out and put together a team of developers in China who can look at what top-tier competitors like Line and KakaoTalk are rolling out and emulate that,” Natkin says.

While creating a user base for Laiwang is now high on the agenda, Ma seems to have put on hold plans for an Alibaba initial public offering. The group had been looking to list before the end of the year but is now likely to wait until 2014 before going public.

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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