What are superapps?

A superapp is a one-stop-shop for digital life, providing various services in a single place. From social networking, to managing your finances, and delivering your groceries — they seem to do it all. WeChat and Alipay in China are the most prominent examples.

With more and more services being offered digitally, and most of us using several mobile apps to access them, bundled digital services is the next logical step for the Western digital world. 

So, how is it possible that when superapps have taken over Eastern markets, they are represented as a couple of integrated services in the West? Why haven’t Western businesses converged to offer all services through a single app yet?

We’re taking a look at what the West could learn from the East and imagine what the future of superapps might look like.

All-in-one: Superapps in Eastern markets

The integrated access to services and products in a single app is more than a trend in some APAC countries — it’s a daily routine. Today, more than ever, creating new businesses and products is driven by consumer experience, and the way consumers are interacting with superapps is what makes them unique.

But, before we start to imagine what the future for superapps in the American and European continents could look like, let’s dive into regional nuances that make superapps successful in the East, and that could prevent them from getting there in the West. 

Gated economies surrounding mini-apps

Gated economies make for the perfect environment for a superapp to thrive. With no Facebook, YouTube or other foreign marketplaces to offer users their digital fix (streaming, services, social media), every digital platform is built within the gated economy and for the local ecosystem. This makes it a lot easier for one company to start integrating services and platforms.

This environment works because instead of new apps being launched, that are incompatible or costly for a certain ecosystem, mini-apps are being developed and tailored for the existing superapp ecosystem.

In gated economies where superapps are a success, mini-apps serve as the backbone of superapps, where payment, marketing, and communication processes aren’t needed for each aggregated service, but provided by the superapp’s ecosystem. 

Western barriers to a similar approach

Although superapps seem like the convenient next digital thing, there are some barriers and challenges to overcome before the concept of a superapp can be a successful venture in Western markets.

Economic, legislative, political, and social elements (such as data privacy) are very different in Eastern as opposed to in Western markets. Additionally, Western markets are not driven by the same consumer behavior, and are overcrowded with multiple providers for the same service, making the market incredibly competitive. 

Despite the regional differences we’ve mentioned, the concept of a superapp isn’t automatically invalidated for markets outside the East. But superapps will look slightly different on the other side of the world. 

The big questions: imagining the superapp in the West

If the superapp was to come out of the West, what would it look like? How would it come about? Would it come from a fintech player, transportation player, or from somebody else? 

We’ve taken a look at some of the big questions that can help us imagine the superapp concept in the West. Using tools like our future scan or How Might We-statement builder helps to brainstorm and explore potential innovation theses. 

What if Uber went hand-in-hand with Airbnb?

Uber joining forces with Airbnb could create a powerhouse — offering services from hospitality and activities, to food and transport around the world. A lifestyle superapp would be born. 

The missing link to make it happen would be an ecosystem where these two businesses could work hand in hand, offering their users the basic integrated services a superapp would — one payment system, one digital platform.

What if Revolut and Deliveroo were partners?

Picture fintech company Revolut and food-delivery-service Deliveroo teaming up, providing the main building blocks for a finance and transport superapp to be built. By working together, they would create synergies beyond their current offering. 

Despite the industry differences that might make the alliance seem incompatible, this idea might not be as far-fetched as it seems.

What if tech monopolies formed an alliance for standards in Europe or the United States, allowing superapps to be viable?

An alliance such as this could stem from (inter)governmental legislation, like digital law allowing competition within an app store, or tech monopolies working towards standardization.

If this kind of venture was successful, it could reshape Western digital markets by creating a fertile ground for superapps to flourish. Think about an app store condensed in a single app, powered by third-party integrations. Who wouldn’t want access to an entire marketplace’s customers through a single app? 

What if private equity firms started buying off different companies?

This scenario could originate in shareholders from private firms looking to consolidate their investments by vertically integrating a superapp stack. Could this be a future play for smaller market players to form a unified front against MANGA (Meta, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Apple)? Time will tell.

What if a national or supranational entity like the EU built its own superapp?

It’s not hard to imagine a route where an existing political alliance like the European Union were to build its own superapp. Although unlikely, there are many reasons why this could be a convenient move. 

An initiative like this one could start with a European parallel to the Asian KYC (know-your-customer) notion — an online identity platform. Although this kind of model would focus less on commercial activities, it could facilitate them as aggregates of the superapp.

A conceptual pivot: alliances

Despite the barriers for superapp dominance in the West, we can imagine the future of superapps by drawing a parallel with the concept of alliances. 

If alliances were to happen, participants would be coordinating interconnected services and data usage, and sharing the responsibility and benefits amongst each other. Instead of a traditional competitive market approach, alliances would be a space where businesses worked with each other, each bringing their own core value to the table. 

Alliances in the west wouldn’t be controlled by a single corporation, but they would work on the basis of aggregate apps, building on top of a common foundation, controlled by many, and leveraging the collected data by the general ecosystem and adhering to regional restrictions. 

Let's sum it up

Superapps won’t remain an Asian-only phenomenon – offering multiple services in a single place and consolidating the app marketplace is increasingly more common, globally. Regardless of what they’re called and how they’ll be developed, superapps will continue to have cross-industry users and consumer experiences. 

Although superapps might not be the next generation of Western digital assets by default, simplified access to digital services is already here, expected to grow in the upcoming years, and a key component of what digital services of the future will look like.

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