The term 'super app' has become synonymous with a one-stop-shop for a multitude of services. But while innovators in Asia such as WeChat, Gojek and Grab have led the charge in providing a platform for everything from messaging and social networking to transportation and food delivery, the concept until now has remained somewhat elusive in Western markets.
However there are signs that dynamics are poised to shift, particularly in the case of Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk's acquisition and rebranding of Twitter into 'X.' As Musk sets his sights on turning X into a Western super app in the style of WeChat, are we on the cusp of the super app era in the West?
The rise of super apps
According to Gartner, by 2027 50% of the population will be using more than one super app, signalling a significant shift in the mobile app industry. Originating in Asia, super apps began as messaging apps expanding their services to include other features such as mobile payments, e-commerce, ride-hailing, food delivery, and social networking. Such apps have surged in popularity in Asia due to their simplicity, flexibility and ability to reduce clutter on mobile devices, improving financial organisation.
“The concept of super apps stems from a growing demand for convenience and seamless user experiences, offering multiple services in one place to provide a more integrated experience for people,” comments Jeremy Baber, CEO of Lanistar. “This is particularly useful in a world where there are so many commercial apps and offerings from multiple businesses.”
But despite the popularity of super apps in other markets, the Western world is seemingly behind in the super app race. “We have seen some household names begin to explore the possibility of diversifying their apps, such as Uber, Klarna and Lydia,” Baber adds, “but have much further to go to reach super app status.”
In contrast to the Western model of different apps serving single-use functions, super apps amalgamate a wide range of services. Tom Grogan, CEO of MDRx, notes that this approach is antithetical to Silicon Valley's ‘narrow focus’ development models. “A super app provides a large number of simultaneous services in a way that means you can conduct entire parts of your professional or personal life on it without needing to swap applications,” he says. “WeChat is the classic example, in that it combines payment, messaging and shopping.
“They are definitely the new obsession for Western technology companies, most vocally Elon Musk and X. This is particularly interesting, not least because it is antithetical to the modern Silicon Valley product development model, honed over decades of building successful and often valuable software products, which emphasises flawless execution of the narrowest possible ‘thing’ and user-centric and iterative development usually using an agile methodology.”
The regional disparity of super apps
Super apps flourish in Southeast Asia but struggle to find similar favour in the West. Jade Fitzgerald, Experience Design Director at Beyond, attributes this to China's firewall policies and superior cellular infrastructure, which make super apps convenient and efficient.
“I believe that there is always demand for something that makes life easier; in the case of the super app, life is improved by a truly connected experience,” she describes. “However, the abundance of apps and competitors that are available in the Western markets means that demand for a super app is lower, since users already have access to these tools.”
There are also factors unique to southeast Asian markets that make them better suited to prolific engagement with super apps, Fitzgerald adds. “In China, for example, its notorious firewall policies prevent many of the single-purpose apps we use in other regions from being downloaded, so compliant super apps offer residents a perceived digital freedom. “Additionally, the complexity of typing Chinese characters make voice notes more of a value add, driving users to download these approved apps.”
As Jan Hauser, Co-Founder at Applifting explains, the deep integration of these apps within local markets can make them less adaptable to global scaling.
“The enormous user base in Asian markets, whether we’re discussing China, India, or Indonesia, is substantial enough that it often suffices for companies to focus on acquiring clients locally,”he says. “Adapting to a different market could present significant challenges in their growth strategy. As a result, many opt to concentrate on their local market, which already offers a vast user base.”
The preference for super apps, Hauser describes, may also have cultural underpinnings. “Speaking from my personal experience, I prefer using a specific app tailored to a particular use case. This is because I believe that an app with a singular focus is more likely to perfect its intended function down to the smallest details. Plus, I have already established an ecosystem within the OS of my devices. However, individuals from different regions might have a completely different perspective. I surmise that they might prefer super apps because of their convenience and ease of use.”
User privacy and regulatory concerns
Both Fitzgerald and Grogan express concerns about data privacy and security, crucial to establishing credibility in new markets. Regulatory requirements can prove to be hurdles, especially considering the anti-trust laws aimed to prevent market abuse by dominant players. Grogan further elaborates on the possible need to regulate super apps as public utilities in some jurisdictions.
“You need a valid lawful basis in order to process personal data,” he says. “Everyone always talks about consent, but there are actually six in total. It may well be that, depending on the basis relied upon, a super app cannot lawfully process personal data in such a way as allows it to feed in across a vast, varied and ever-growing application.”
Hauser points to potential data breaches due to inadequate security measures. His concern, however, is also about the consent given by users to access their data, often without scrutinising the terms and conditions.
“These concerns are not exclusive to super apps or conventional apps; they are more general in nature. The potential for data breaches due to inadequate security measures is a significant worry. A large number of users still refrain from using password managers or setting unique passwords for each application. This reuse of passwords can lead to severe problems in the event of data breaches.”
The future of super app development
While Fitzgerald envisions vast untapped opportunities, especially in emerging markets, Grogan predicts the Western market will see super apps rise through a blend of product development and strategic mergers and acquisitions.
“There are so many emerging markets for tech still — if you look at the success of China’s WeChat and the constant additions and iterations that are being made to it, you can see how much opportunity is still untapped,” comments Fitzgerald. “Considering how this app is growing in different countries, largely driven by Chinese expats who want to communicate with family in China, it will be interesting to see how it will be adopted outside of that communication circle as time goes on.
“In emerging markets like Kenya, Nigeria or Botswana, super apps have been growing as low-spending users utilise the easy engagement of a super app to their benefit, against the costs of expensive data. So if companies want to be able to tap into growing economies, super app development may be key for them.”
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