Skip to main content Skip to footer

Journey to the West? Can a WeChat-style superapp change telecoms as we know it?

Superapps Small

Will we one day access all our lifestyle services from a single mobile app? Having taken Asian markets by storm, can all-encompassing superapps work in the West too? And is there room in this ever-expanding market for telcos to get involved?

Having once put a car into outer space, Elon Musk now seems determined to sink an entire social media platform. The erratic, caffeine-free-Diet-Coke-drinking, replica-gun-toting billionaire’s much-publicised purchase of Twitter barely a month ago has been dogged by an exodus of employees and advertisers, a return of some of the site’s greatest villains, and a heavy dose of schadenfreude.

Shortly after his acquisition of Twitter was confirmed, Musk did let slip an admission, now mostly lost among the many scandals that have since erupted, that may indicate the direction he plans to steer the app in an attempt to turn around its losses:

X marks the spot
Provided he doesn’t crash the website faster than one of his malfunctioning cars, could he turn Twitter into a superapp, or merge it with his portfolio of other ventures? Could users, in the future, hail a SpaceX flight, or buy a flamethrower via a tweet?

Musk has certainly floated the idea of adding digital payments to Twitter in private text messages released during the legal to-and-fro over his purchase of the site, arguing: “It would make sense to integrate payments into Twitter so it’s easy to send money back and forth.” This is an area he certainly has form in, having co-founded in 1999, one of the first online financial services and payment companies, prior to its merger with Confinity to form PayPal in 2000.

This time though, his sights may be set beyond financial services, given his admiration of China’s WeChat; as he told Twitter employees at a company meeting in June: “You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so usable and helpful to daily life.”

Putting my Tencents in
Launched as a humble messaging service in 2011 by Tencent, WeChat is now a self-contained ecosystem of complementary services, including instant messaging, taxi hailing, food orders, social media, digital payments, doctors’ appointments, and online gaming. WeChat boasts more than one billion users, according to estimates, and has only become a more and more integral part of daily life in China since citizen’s digital IDs were tethered to it.

With clear and common user interfaces, these services become a form of operating system, offering a consistent user experience without the need to download multiple apps, share personal data with many third parties, or repeatedly enter personal details and payment information.

Adding other functions to augment the base service is easy thanks to WeChat’s open architecture and APIs and its “mini-programs” – stripped-down apps stored within WeChat, letting users customise their own app experience:

Downloaded from within the app or via QR code, mini-programs are also now widely used by the likes of AliPay, Baidu and Douyin (China’s domestic TikTok).

Beyond China, these apps have also become firmly embedded in the lives of customers in regions where mobile is the main, if not the only, form of access to the internet, particularly for those people whose lower-end smartphones don’t have the storage for dozens of data-hungry apps.

Wider Asia has apps such as Grab and Tata Neu; Africa has Gozem and Ayoba; and South America has Rappi; all giving access to a range of seamless digital and real-world services, though none can boast the same scale or saturation as WeChat.

The sincerest form of flattery
Though superapps are proliferating across much of the world, there are currently no such challengers in Europe or North America with quite the same level of service offerings or market penetration, though this is likely soon to change.

Meta has tried to expand beyond social networking and messaging, introducing e-commerce, functionalities to Facebook and Instagram. WhatsApp is a likely candidate, if any, for superapp status one day, building on its messaging service with B2B and ecommerce functions, while solving the decade-long monetisation conundrum that’s dogged the app.

In the transport sphere, Uber has ambitions as a superapp; already offering users taxis, scooter hire and food deliveries, it announced in April that it was trialling letting UK users purchase bus, train and plane tickets directly from its app, creating a “a one-stop shop for travel”. This looks promising, with the company reportedly due to offer hotel bookings through its app too.

Meanwhile, Revolut has firmly put itself on the path to financial superapp status this year, with the two-pronged release of its own short-term rental platform, Revolut Stays, and an in-app chat client giving users a place “to discuss and clarify payment details”.

These superapp ambitions are even taking some digital firms to the high street, benefitting from the growing number of vacant shopfronts; Deliveroo recently opened a “phygital” store on Oxford Street, central London, partnering with supermarket chain Morrisons to provide a rapid grocery service for shoppers to order goods in advance via its app, for collection in-store or delivery, while also acting as an inner-city fulfilment centre for delivery riders.

Few of these firms on their own though can match the range of services provided by WeChat. However, given time, even the most established industry incumbents might be at risk if they don’t diversify their portfolio of services. For example, earlier this year Airbnb announced it was to cease operations in China after losing the battle against the domestic powerhouse Meituan, which offers food delivery, movie tickets and more on top of short-term rental services.

The superapportunity for telcos
A homegrown telco superapp could become a robust user platform for digital entertainment, e-commerce, and financial services. As WeChat has proven, a communications platform provides fertile ground from which to build out and expand services to provide a one-stop shop for telcos to engage with customers and partners, while reducing the acquisition costs of other products and services.

Key to this must be an open platform approach to their apps, needed to easily on-board 3rd party services and embed these into their own digital experience. Telcos can leverage their extant services and partnerships to build up their superapp credentials.

Pity then that earlier this year, in “one of the biggest about-faces in corporate deal history”, AT&T offloaded WarnerMedia after acquiring it for $85 billion in 2018, losing an in-house stable of content from Warner Bros., HBO, CNN, and several sports networks. AT&T is just one of many telcos divesting their media acquisitions to focus their efforts on connectivity and cut their losses in the tumultuous content sector.

Furthermore, upcoming changes to privacy and cookie laws means that any platform that profits from tracking users’ browsing journeys across the web can no longer guarantee their ads will lead to someone buying something. So keeping customers and their personal data in a self-contained advertising/e-commerce ecosystem – becoming content fortresses, for better or for worse – will be paramount for maximising traceable consumer spend.

Is “superapp” just a euphemism for “feature creep”, or an example of Zawinski’s Law? Could the growing list of features, and complexity, of superapps that force you to “live in” them diminish their utility in the eyes of consumers?

Telcos need to pick their superapp services carefully or run the risk of spreading themselves too thinly. For example, Grab recently discontinued its “cloud kitchen” service in Indonesia, shifting to an “an asset-light business model” for the region in the face of economic uncertainty.
From Musk till Yawn
Twitter’s metamorphosis into a superapp may, of course, not pan out – inevitably perhaps, given what some are calling the company’s rapid “implosion” under the Musk regime. Even if the bird website pulls through, Musk has a penchant for not keeping to his promises – for example his fleet of self-driving cars by the end of 2014, and flights to Mars by the end of this very year.

While superapps may one day proliferate in Europe and North America, they’re unlikely to become the all-encompassing apps that consumers never have to leave. WeChat was released and cultivated in step with growing smartphone adoption and infrastructure deployments, gradually locking consumers in over time.

Currently, Tata Neu and VodaPay are two of the best examples of telco superapps, leveraging their parent companies’ accumulated services to offer online retail, digital banking and more. Superapps could be game changers for any telco seeking to increase their services and extend the value of existing offerings – but should they look to build their own superapps, incorporating all their offerings into a single platform, or are they better advised to integrate themselves into the ecosystems of others?

About the author

Adam Hughes


Keep up with the latest company news and industry analysis