In the first article of our Super Apps Series, Alex Guzelkececiyan and Hannah Smyk explore the definition of super apps, the market conditions fuelling their success in Asia, and how the super-app trend is developing in the West.
According to Google’s English dictionary, the word application in computing is defined as “a program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose”.1 Our smartphones are full of them, and they allow us to do seemingly anything and everything – think of Apple’s iPhone campaign with the trademarked phrase “There’s an app for that”.2 But what if an app could not only fulfil a particular purpose but every purpose? Instead of ‘an app for that’, it would be the app for everything. This concept has come to be known as the ‘super app’ – you’ll probably have heard of Tencent’s WeChat in China, a famous example.
So, what exactly are super apps and why are they flourishing in Asia? Will we see super apps spread to markets in the West? In the first article of this two-part series, we take a look at these questions.
What is a Super App?
Put simply, a super app is a single platform with multiple functions – it integrates a wide variety of features that would typically only be available through a number of different apps. For example, WeChat’s functions include social media, instant messaging, e-wallet, banking, e-commerce, food and grocery delivery, ride hailing, travel booking, utility bill paying, insurance and health services and e-government services.3
There are three key traits that all super apps share and that are integral to their success. First, they have massive active user bases (WeChat had 1.17 billion active users as of Q1 20204). Second, they have advanced data analytics processes which are utilised to collect data from their massive user base. The variety of services enables these apps to collect a wide range of datatypes and to create a 360-degree view of their customers.
Third, super apps are agile and open to creating partnerships with other service providers. They can leverage the data they collect to create services that specifically target their users.5 Adding new services enhances customer stickiness and provides the apps with even more data, which they can then use to identify the next service to roll out, and the cycle continues. Partnerships facilitate growth as the apps do not own the services themselves, which minimises development costs. New services are also low risk since the apps already have their loyal customer base along with the data on how to best service their needs.6
Super Apps in Asia
The super-app phenomenon originated in China and has since spread to other countries in Asia, such as Singapore, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Although super apps operate in other geographies around the world, they are heavily concentrated and have a high uptake in Asia.
The two largest super apps are the Chinese apps WeChat and AliPay. Both benefit from the high smartphone penetration in China and relatively lax regulation, especially with regards to data protection and privacy. Their philosophy is also all-encompassing – these companies aren’t trying to release a single product to fix a particular problem; their entire ethos is centred around transitioning every aspect of their users’ lifestyles into their online ecosystems.7
That being said, China’s continued crackdown on the technology sector is seeing regulatory authorities introduce stricter data rules which may have major implications for these tech giants.
While the Chinese market is more or less a duopoly of these two apps, Southeast Asia is quickly becoming a battleground for new super apps. The sector has been heating up with the recently announced merger of Indonesia’s two biggest start-ups, Gojek and Tokopedia, to create the GoTo app which will have 100 million users and is valued at $18 billion. This new app will aim to compete with Singaporean-based app Grab, which recently underwent a $40 billion SPAC merger to go public on the NASDAQ.8
Other influential super apps in the region include South Korea’s Kakao, which has 48 million monthly users and offers services that include messaging, payments, music streaming, investments, ride hailing and video games, and India’s Paytm, the country’s biggest mobile payments platform which integrates services like food delivery and travel booking, and has 350 million users.9
Growth opportunities in this region vary between developed and developing markets. Developed economies, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, already have mature service industries and so the opportunities for super apps lie in bundling together fragmented services and targeting specific customer needs. These developed economies, however, come with a developed regulatory landscape, which can present a number of obstacles to growth. In developing markets, like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, services are more limited, regulation is in its early stages of development, and the number of mobile users is booming (there were 40 million new internet users in Southeast Asia in 201910) – these conditions create opportunities for super apps to establish themselves as platforms that bring new services to these previously un-tapped markets.
Will we see Super Apps in the West?
In short, yes and no – it depends on how you choose to define ‘super apps’.
No. It is not likely that we will see the likes of WeChat and the other Asian super-apps operating in the West because the far more stringent regulatory regimes would hamstring their business models. Furthermore, every Chinese firm is required under law to provide the Chinese government with any data that it requests. Although the likes of Tencent are steadfast in their assertions that they abide by the regulations of each market that they operate within, the general unease caused by this law would limit the uptake of Chinese apps in western demographics.11 A native super app start-up in the West would experience the additional hurdle of being bought up by one of the big four tech firms and integrated into their applications. Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook have made a combined 607 acquisitions,12 a strategy that has been criticised for limiting innovation and the ability of new apps to enter the market.
Yes. Consumer preference is leaning towards bundled services.13 The proliferation of services has resulted in consumers having to navigate multiple apps, with multiple accounts and multiple user interfaces – a tedious exercise. Super apps’ combined offering is in alignment with general growing customer expectations and demands for speed, convenience and a frictionless customer experience.
It is also important to recognise that super apps do in fact already exist in the West – they simply are not marketed as ‘super apps’. If you want to go on holiday, for example, you can book your flight and accommodation, research and make reservations for your planned activities, and hail an Uber, all directly through the Google app. All of this activity is tracked and the data is used to provide you with relevant content the next time you do a Google search.14 Tech giants like Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Amazon and Facebook are in many ways like Asia’s WeChat and AliPay, with their provision of a multitude of services, their ability to create 360 - degree data views of their customers and their huge user bases – but they don’t have quite the same level of integration and do not present themselves as ‘super apps’.
So, like we said – yes and no.
What does this mean for the financial services industry?
Super apps have been venturing into financial services. With their huge data sets, innovative approach to customer service and remarkable agility, they have the potential to disrupt the sector and to present a significant threat to traditional players. In the second part of this series on super apps, we will explore the implications of super apps for the financial services industry and consider how traditional players can respond to this changing landscape.
5 DBS Asian Insights: Super Apps in Financial Services, September 2019