Can Twitter still be beaten? Chinese rival to launch in the US

So here’s a question, do you think that a broadly similar service can successfully take on Twitter at its own game?

That must be the question that Chinese internet firm Sina is asking as reports emerge that it is preparing to launch its own very popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo in the US shortly.

TechWeb reports that “according to informed sources, [Sina] is actively preparing for microblogging Sina English, plans to enter the US market…[in] about 2-3 months”.

As it stands Sina’s Weibo is if not a clone of Twitter then is very similar with some richer features and it is big. It is bigger in China than Twitter is in the US. It has witnessed explosive growth since its launch in August 2009 and already has more than 140 million registered users and says it will pass 200 million by the end of the year.

Weibo is also attracting big US brands with Budweiser among those trialling it and the Chinese government is also using it in a significant way – similar to how our own governments are using Twitter in the UK and US.

Being big in China is one thing, but how will that translate into English? The US will be an incredibly tough nut to crack when the two services are broadly similar both in terms of features and look.

Twitter is already so deeply ingrained in Western culture with its use by the media, celebrities and business all of which have built sizeable networks running into the many millions in an increasing number of cases.

It is difficult to imagine that many would up and change or take up another service when there is relatively little to distinguish between them. Twitter as I wrote in a post a little while back has changed our world in a number of ways and in doing so it has built up a stock of goodwill and a dedicated fan and user base.

While for a long while it has felt that Twitter rested on its laurels it has in recent months been moving to improve and develop. There’s lots it can and needs to do. We’ve recently had the new follow button, the acquisition of TweetDeck, the launch of its own photo service and improvements to search.

What does Sina offer that’s different? According to Gaurav Mishra Weibo is more than a Twitter clone. He points to the fact that that marketers get more out of it because it is also integrated with Sina’s popular portal and photos and videos are displayed inline under the posts allowing multimedia content more easily.

There is also the obvious fact that while both services are based on 140 characters in Chinese you can say a lot more with those characters than you can in English, which begs the question why stick to 140 characters in English? Granted adding too many more makes it difficult to read a stream of long posts in the same way that we do now, but maybe there is some leeway.

There are some other key differences that Weibo has over Twitter. The use of branded or verified pages is far more widespread. Very useful for brands. The way it handles comments for instance is also neat. These are threaded under the posts on Weibo allowing you to track the conversations started and Weibo’s portal pages are more comprehensive than that of Twitter.

Charles Chao, CEO and President of Sina said earlier this year that Sina Weibo used the pattern of “forward and comment” at the very beginning and supported multimedia, whereas Twitter just featured one-way communication and supported only words. Chao said these two fundamental differences would enable Sina Weibo to be well ahead of Twitter.

Is it a Twitter killer? Never say never, but it seems very unlikely. Maybe, more than anything the arrival or Weibo will press Twitter to develop. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Weibo getting a strong English foothold, but its grip over the Chinese market and ability to challenge Twitter in other language markets is certainly real.