U.S. Firms Chase China’s WeChat in Bid to Build Super Apps

U.S. tech execs are experiencing app envy, with companies from Uber to PayPal and billionaires Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey setting their sights on building one-size-fits-all “super apps” to rival Tencent’s WeChat in China and SoftBank’s LINE in Japan. Where typical apps are built to do one thing really well, so-called super apps are generalists, which in theory means people will use them more often. Spotify and Snap have also expressed interest in super solutions, which have been popular in Asia since 2020 and are sparking new interest in the West.

But with antitrust enforcement top of mind the world over, skeptics say super apps will only serve to concentrate power more deeply among fewer companies, compounding what many regulators already see as a problem.

Conceding the super app definition “is fuzzy,” The Wall Street Journal describes it as “cramming ever more features and functions” into individual apps, often “adjacent to, but distinct from, their core functionality. So, for example, a financial-tech super app might start with payments and bolt on buy-now-pay-later, cryptocurrency and in-app storefronts. For social media, it could mean incorporating things like shopping.”

While the idea of one super app to rule them all will no doubt remain elusive, it won’t stop companies from trying, and “their attempts could reshape how millions of people interact with some of the most used apps and services on their devices” as well as “have profound implications for how these companies generate revenue, and what types of businesses they pursue,” WSJ writes.

The evolution of super apps in Asia is attributed to the fact that most people there became Internet-dependent on smartphones, not computers, thus the expectations were open-ended as to what an app should do. WeChat now has about 1.3 billion users. Apps that have similarly aspired to super status include China’s Alipay and Southeast Asia’s Grab and Gojek.

The idea behind super apps is “any company that has an app, you’re really focused on getting to the point of being a home screen app,” Lightspeed Venture Partners investor Nicole Quinn told The Verge in November.

More recently, Musk in his first Twitter town hall told employees that building an app like WeChat could help advance the U.S. social platform to a goal of one billion users, quintupling its current base. “There’s no WeChat equivalent out of China. There’s a real opportunity to create that,” Musk said, according to Forbes.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel called Musk’s super app musings “compelling,” while Nick Molnar, an executive at Dorsey’s Block, said the company intends to create a form of super app by combining Cash App and Afterpay. Last year, PayPal launched what it called its super app, combining crypto, bill pay, shopping and more.

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