HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Billionaire Jack Ma's Alibaba, the dominant force in China's $1.6 trillion e-commerce market, may already have lost a battle with rival Tencent for the world's biggest mobile market.
While Alibaba Group Holding Ltd dominates in e-commerce, Tencent Holdings Ltd has taken over China's smartphone screens with its WeChat, or Weixin, social messaging platform.
It's a battle that is being more closely watched after Facebook Inc's $19 billion WhatsApp buy, and puts the spotlight on Ma's mobile strategy, especially as Alibaba winds up for a mega IPO that could value the company at close to $130 billion.
The WhatsApp acquisition and that of mobile messaging firm Viber by Japan's Rakuten Inc have driven home this month how crucial mobile messaging platforms are to controlling user experience on smartphone screens.
"The world's major tech companies are realizing that having a really popular mobile messenger has simply become table stake for competing in this era of computing," said Ted Livingston, CEO of Kik Messenger, a WhatsApp rival. "If you want to play in mobile, you need to have a popular mobile messenger. You don't have one? You don't get to play."
Alibaba has been grappling with its mobile business in China, and its Laiwang mobile messaging app has yet to make a big impact - either as a chat app or a portal for mobile gaming. As of November, Laiwang had 10 million users, according to Alibaba. As of September, Tencent's WeChat mobile messaging app had 272 million monthly active users, booking taxis, topping up phone credit and even investing in wealth management products.
Some observers say that's too big a catch-up for Alibaba.
"WeChat has won China," said Ben Thompson, who writes about technology at stratechery.com in Taipei. "It's going to be the dominant application there. Tencent controls the channel, the customer relationship (and) that means they can promote their services and e-commerce offerings to the exclusion and detriment of Alibaba."
Data from Chinese app store Wandoujia show that games released on WeChat rocketed to the top of their most-downloaded lists, suggesting the app's appeal goes well beyond messaging.
Forrester, a consultancy, forecasts that China will have more than 500 million smartphones this year.
Ma doesn't look like he's thrown in the towel, and was widely reported as telling employees they wouldn't receive their annual bonus unless they signed up 100 new users for Laiwang. He also offered cash rewards to those who signed up the most users.
Last month, Alibaba announced plans to set up a mobile gaming platform - after repeatedly saying it would not go into gaming - venturing into a fast growing sector dominated by Tencent in China. At the time, Alibaba spokesman Wang Shuai said that games developed for Laiwang would be specifically designed to compete with WeChat titles. "We're unhappy with Tencent's monopoly in this industry," he wrote on Alibaba's microblog. "We have to help to fight for a healthy environment for game development."
"They're very aware their mobile apps are doing well from an e-commerce standpoint," said a Hong Kong-based M&A banker who is aware of Alibaba's strategy. "But the way people use mobile is changing and if they don't adapt, they run the risk that WeChat is going to take some of their market share."
Alibaba has tried to push its mobile offerings to clients and users, setting up a 500 million yuan ($82 million) investment fund to give away smartphones to online merchants using Alibaba's sites. Last year, Alibaba offered up to 2 gigabytes of free mobile data to users in certain Chinese provinces if they applied for the data through Alibaba apps.
When Tencent launched a "red envelope" feature for WeChat for Chinese New Year, letting users send traditional money gifts by smartphone, Ma called it a "Pearl Harbour attack" on his personal Laiwang account. Tencent said more than 8 million people used the WeChat feature.
Alibaba controls about 80 percent of China's e-commerce and, while there is little immediate threat that WeChat or others are making a huge dent, Tencent is gaining momentum in smartphone-based e-commerce.
"In theory, if Alibaba did nothing WeChat could completely take over mobile commerce - that's not really acceptable," said Marc Einstein, a Tokyo-based tech analyst at Frost & Sullivan.
Alibaba is mindful of the competition, bankers said, but unlike Facebook, it's constrained by what it can buy and how it can structure deals - it already has Yahoo Inc and SoftBank Corp as big strategic shareholders.
Analysts and bankers point to two potential acquisition targets for Alibaba. Naver Corp's LINE, a Japanese messenger with 350 million users that is said to be preparing for an initial public offering, and South Korea's KakaoTalk, which would seem a distant and unlikely second choice as Tencent owns a 13.84 percent stake in its owner, Kakao.
"If you can't build it, buy it," said Frank Yu, a Beijing-based technology investment adviser and CEO of Kwestr, an online social game. "They're going to be on a buying spree, if not already in discussions."
But Facebook's stratospheric valuation of WhatsApp - a basic messaging app rather than a broad social platform with games, finance and e-commerce - has upped the ante and is likely to make any acquisition even more costly.
"The question is whether (WeChat) will drive Alibaba into doing a crazy Facebook-like deal," said a second person familiar with Alibaba's thinking. "The options available to Alibaba are limited if they decide to turn aggressive on acquisitions. They can either buy LINE or bid for KakaoTalk. Those would be desperate moves."
As Tencent makes inroads into Alibaba's e-commerce turf - it this month bought 20 percent of Dianping, China's largest restaurant review and business listing site, and is reported to be in talks with online retailer JD.com to combine their e-commerce businesses - an alternative strategy for Ma may be to swallow defeat and work with Tencent, pushing Alibaba's services through WeChat.
"It's a difficult and emasculating situation," said stratechery.com's Thompson. "The users are on WeChat. The best Alibaba can do is accept that reality and see what it can do to co-opt it."
Alibaba and Tencent declined to comment.
($1 = 6.0914 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Gerry Shih in SAN FRANCISCO; Editing by Ian Geoghegan