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When you pay with a credit or debit card at the store, the business is charged a small fee by the card payment system, and it turns out these fees can add up to a multi-trillion dollar business.

At the throne of this global empire sits the Chinese app Alipay (Android, iOS), but the company's grip has slipped in recent years as rival WeChat has turned up the heat. Alipay's cut of the action has shrunk from about 70 percent in 2015 to about 54 percent as of this year.

SEE: Chinese government to restrict video game usage and the release of new games

Alipay, an offshoot of the Alibaba Group founded in 1999 by Jack Ma and Peng Lei, is not one to rest on its laurels, however. Today, it announced that it's investing $146 million over three years to accelerate mini app development, to compete better against WeChat (Android, iOS), which has had its own mini app ecosystem since January 2017.

Similarly to a web browser add-on, mini apps load within their main app, extending functionality to add things like hailing a cab, making purchases, or ordering food. In theory, the mini ecosystem is more curated and therefore safer to use than a regular app store. This setup has helped vault WeChat into a level of daily usage and ubiquity in China that rivals that of Facebook or Google in the west.

$146 million might seem like an arbitrary number, but it currently corresponds to exactly one billion yuan, the official currency of the People's Republic of China.

Alipay has been beta testing its own collection of mini apps for about year, but it currently counts roughly 20,000 mini apps, which is actually a relatively modest number in this market.

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For reference, WeChat boasts over one million mini apps, putting it in the same conversation as the app stores created by Google and Apple for iOS and Android. In fact, some makers of standalone apps in China have been reporting substantial declines in usage, in favor of their mini apps.

Caixin Global reports that movie ticketing platform Maoyan, the largest in the country, has been getting about ten times as many monthly active users from within WeChat, compared to the version that can be downloaded separately.

So Alipay's $146 million investment is designed to close the gap between it and WeChat, the latter of whom remains on track to overcome Alipay as the world's biggest payment processor. It might sound impossible to scale from 20,000 to 1 million in a short amount of time, but WeChat reached this milestone in about 18 months.

So far, neither WeChat nor the idea of mini apps has taken off outside of China. But if the pace of WeChat's mini app store growth is any indication, the phenomenon has the potential to take over quickly.

The takeaways

  • Alipay has announced that it will be spending $146 million over the next three years to develop more mini apps to compete against rival WeChat.
  • Mini apps are like browser add-ons, extending functionality to do things like order food or hail a cab; WeChat has over one million of these operating in China, whereas Alipay has about 20,000 after a beta testing phase that lasted for about a year.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.