For the longest time, the philosophy behind quality app development has been predicated on the notion of keeping things streamlined. The notion is to keep your app to be DRY – short for “Don’t repeat yourself”. Similarly, apps are generally designed to do one thing and do it well. Feature creep is one of the most rampant issues in the app development process, and you can quickly get overwhelmed by bugs when you’re working with a codebase that tries to do everything at once.
But China is flipping the script on that notion, and some are seeing this new model of “super apps” as a vision of what the future could look like. But understanding whether this economy of monopolistic super apps will work outside of China means understanding the unique cultural, political, and geographical circumstances of China as well as how it compares to the sensibilities of the rest of the world.
And it means understanding what makes these apps successful. In the traditional model, creating an app with a clean and user-friendly user interface and a singular purpose is the goal. In the super app model, it’s merely a springboard. An app will start with a singular premise that earns it a user install base, and then it uses that clout to start folding in new features and leveraging partnerships with other companies who can benefit from the buy-in of that customer base.
That’s how an app like WeChat, which started off as a simple messenger service, has since integrated a boggling amount of features into its infrastructure. WeChat can now be used to purchase practically any product or service you could want, as a hub for all of your mobile gaming experiences, and to scroll a carefully curated newsfeed. They’ve even created a program that allows users to create miniature apps within the WeChat interface. The expansion potential is practically limitless, and the customer buy-in is strong enough for WeChat to follow through in whatever direction they want to go.
Part of what makes a platform like WeChat successful is that the core component tying it all together is a chat app. By tying all these services into an app that people are using with regularity every day, they’ve created a platform that can handle all the things most users would need to do while hanging out with friends or family in a single platform. Further maximizing that effectiveness is that the majority of services that WeChat offers are fundamentally tied into many of our daily social activities.
That doesn’t mean that the super app model is going to work just as effectively everywhere or that it’s proof that the traditional app development model is somehow broken. That’s because the success of WeChat is largely predicated on a unique set of circumstances within the regions where these super apps are popular. China is an economy where many citizens didn’t have a computer at the advent of the smartphone, and that means that for much of the population, phone apps are their first exposure to the internet.
And it’s not exclusive to China either. India and countries throughout Africa saw cellular phone adoption at a rate faster than America, in large part thanks to the fact that they were building the infrastructure for the first time instead of having to rebuild what was already there.
By having a new audience that appeared practically overnight, larger corporations like Tencent had the opportunity to monopolize their potential audience. And with China having incredibly lax antitrust laws, such monopolies were quick to develop. Tencent, the company behind WeChat, even has close ties with the Chinese government, with promotions between both having happened in the past. Additionally, many of these big Chinese companies rose up after the infrastructure was in place for major apps like PayPal, Facebook, and Amazon. With a blueprint in place, a single company was positioned to integrate all of them together into a single app.
Throughout much of the world, those circumstances wouldn’t work. America already has an existing ecosystem of tech companies with enough weight to throw each other off balance and prevent the emergence of a single super app. Moreover, users have already bought into this ecosystem. And it’s not as if companies haven’t tried to consolidate more services under a single umbrella.
But you can look to Google’s repeated failures at creating a Facebook-style social media platform or Windows’ disastrous outreach into the smartphone market to realize that it takes a lot more than just money and leverage to create an app that will catch on in the west. With so many competing voices, it’s unlikely that one will simply usurp all the others with an app that binds together all of the competing services.
Moreover, it’s unlikely that many world governments would allow it. The United States is already seeing bipartisan support for curbing the control of the American tech giants that already exist. Antitrust laws are strictly in place elsewhere throughout the world too – and American platforms like Twitter and Instagram already have a firm hold on markets throughout the world.
That’s not to say that the idea of the super app won’t grab hold anywhere else. The super app may have started in China, but it’s already finding success throughout Southeast Asia. India is similarly seeing the rise of super apps like Flipkart and Paytm Mobile Solutions. If there’s a place where super apps find success, it will likely be in countries where public exposure to the internet is relatively new, and antitrust laws are not particularly restrictive. That’s not to say that super apps won’t continue to be a presence, but they’re a phenomenon that builds off of existing technology rather than innovating what the future of apps will be.