If there were a contest for the single greatest app in the world, Tencent's (NASDAQOTH:TCEHY) WeChat would be a strong contender. The all-in-one super app has become a central hub for Chinese daily life, with a significant portion of users reportedly spending over four hours per day on the platform.

Recently, Tencent CEO Pony Ma revealed another huge milestone: WeChat had exceeded 1 billion users.

It's an incredible achievement that took Tencent just seven years to reach. That's actually slightly better than the eight years it took Facebook, which reached 1 billion users back in 2012.  (Facebook now has 2.13 billion monthly active users.)

Here's a look at WeChat's amazing history.

Artist's rendering of hands working a smartphone overlaid on a map of the world.

Image source: Getty Images.

WeChat's beginnings

WeChat launched in January 2011. Even though Tencent already had a widely used desktop-focused messaging app in QQ, the company sought to disrupt itself by launching a new app geared for mobile. The initial WeChat app was built by just seven engineers.

The telcos in China all had their own messaging apps at the time, but WeChat gained initial success by being telco-agnostic. WeChat began with simple text, photo, and voice messaging, then added video later in its first year.

The company grew to 100 million users in just over a year, and reached 300 million users in just two years. Success could partly be attributed to innovative ways in which Tencent helped users accumulate friends, such as:

  • People Nearby, allowing users to find other users on an interactive map of their area. 
  • Shake, whereby shaking your phone would put you in contact with a random WeChat user.
  • Message in a Bottle, whereby a user could send a message to a random person in the WeChat ecosystem.

In 2012, Alibaba tried to launch its own chat app, but by that time, the network effects of WeChat had become too great, and Alibaba's app didn't take off.

In 2012, WeChat opened up the platform to brands, which rushed in to create their own WeChat Moments pages.

In 2013, the app added its signature Game Center, as well as WeChat Pay mobile payments. These are two of the biggest ways in which Tencent makes money from WeChat.

In 2014, WeChat partnered with what was then Didi Dache, enabling ride-sharing within the WeChat app (Tencent was an early investor in Didi). That same year also saw the beginning of WeChat stores, allowing users to shop and buy directly through a business's WeChat account.

Also in 2014, the company invented the WeChat Red Packet, whereby users can send one another monetary gifts. This has led to a huge New Year's gifting ritual, and many bloggers on WeChat earn significant income through voluntary "tips" from followers.

Only in 2015 did WeChat open its platform to social media ads on WeChat Moments. The deliberate rollout follows the company's policy of "monetizing subtly." 

In January 2017, Tencent launched WeChat mini-programs, a development that could forever change the world of phone apps, at least in China. The company allowed developers to create lightweight web apps that can be accessed via WeChat, and which don't need to be downloaded onto a user's phone. As storage space is a large issue among owners of lower-end smartphones, this was an ingenious invention in the emerging Chinese market. 

In addition to all these features, there are a host of other odd things you can do on WeChat; check out Tech in Asia's post on this here.

Other recent WeChat milestones

While the 1 billion-user mark is impressive, other recent milestones may be even more so. Here are just a few:

Record gifting: Technode estimated that 688 million people recently used WeChat for hongbao, a Chinese tradition whereby elders and children exchange monetary gifts on the Chinese New Year. That was good for an increase of 15% over 2017.

Mini-programs taking off: The new mini-program initiative is a potentially huge development that could be responsible for Tencent stock's incredible 113% rise last year. From a standing start, the mini-program count has risen to over 580,000 in just one year. The ascension of mini-programs in China is certainly a development to watch.

Payments skyrocketing: In 2016, Chinese mobile payments more than doubled to $5 trillion, and WeChat Pay -- along with competitor Alipay -- are the dominant leaders in this megatrend, with a combined mobile-payment market share estimated at over 90%. WeChat Pay is also expanding overseas, as it seeks to bring overseas merchants onto the platform in order to connect with Chinese tourists, and has  launched a currency conversion tool into 13 currencies in 25 regions and countries.

WeChat's billion-user milestone is clearly just one of many; for tech investors interested in the next big thing, keep a close eye on Tencent -- it may just occur inside the WeChat platform. 

Billy Duberstein owns shares of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Facebook, and Tencent Holdings. His clients may own some of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook and Tencent Holdings. The Motley Fool has the following options: short March 2018 $200 calls on Facebook and long March 2018 $170 puts on Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.