Super Apps Are Taking Over Asia Pacific, But Why Aren’t They Picking Up Steam In The West?

Bessie LiuFeatures

Super apps contain multiple functions that are easily accessed in one space.

Blackberry’s founder Mike Lazaridis came up with the concept of the ‘super app’ in 2010, defining it as “a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.”

Super apps contain multiple functions that are easily accessed in one space. The idea may still seem a little foreign in Western countries, but throughout the Asia Pacific super apps are the new normal.

Some of the most prominent super apps in Asia currently include:

  • WeChat Owned by Tencent Holdings, WeChat is the most popular mobile app in China, with over one billion monthly active users. The app initially started as a voice messaging platform, but now its users can order taxis, apply for loans, read the news and even find dates on the WeChat ecosystem.

  • Alipay Affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, Alipay is an online payment platform that allows its users to pay in-store, online, and transfer and receive money overseas. The app also helps with managing finances and ordering transportation, including flights, rail and rides.

  • Grab Singaporean startup Grab is now one of the most commonly used transportation super apps in Southeast Asia. Valued at $40 billion, users can order rides, food and manage their finances through the platform.

  • KaKao Similar to WeChat, KaKao started as a messaging platform. It was first introduced in 2014 and now boasts almost 50 million monthly active users, most of whom are South Korean. On KaKao, users can stream music, check stocks and investments, order rides, play video games and share photographs.

  • Line The most prevalently used app in Japan, LINE was once a chat app that has now turned into an all-encompassing service provider. The app has 84 monthly active users who can play games, hail cabs, and stream music and video on the platform.

  • Gojek Founded in Indonesia in 2010, Gojek offers transport methods, payments, food delivery, shopping and digital space all on one app. The company has $5.3 billion in funding so far.

The closest app to reaching the super app status in the West is arguably Amazon, where customers can now stream movies, read books and online shop in one space. Despite this, there are a few reasons why super apps have seen much more success in Asia than in western countries.

Privacy concerns

A significant factor that has prevented the adoption of super apps in the West is the general mistrust towards large corporations and what they do with an individual’s data. The reason why super apps have been able to successfully deliver services in many Asia Pacific countries is because of the data they can collect on their consumers - the more data collected, the more tailored the services.

Internet economy and mobile experiences

Most super apps are designed for mobile experiences, with minimal desktop interfaces. In comparison to the West, there was a much slower adoption of internet usage in Eastern countries. Founders of internet companies during the early 2000s were mostly from English-speaking countries, and services and information for internet users in the Asia Pacific region were limited. For this reason, many people from Western countries have adapted to switching between platforms for different tasks.

By comparison, internet usage in the Asia Pacific region only began to grow during the 2010s, and this was primarily due to the improvement in mobile networks.

WeChat first launched in 2011, a year after Google pulled its services from mainland China. At the time, there was very little competition in the market, and Tencent was able to scale WeChat to include different services made explicitly for the Chinese market. So for many users in the region, the first time they came into contact with the internet was through a smartphone on an app designed specifically for them.

Connected with the wallet

Something incredibly unique about super apps is their ability to offer essential banking services to consumers, limiting their interactions with financial institutions.

Unlike the United States, which has a relatively low unbanked population, a vast majority of adults in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific are unbanked. By digitizing payments, super apps have made it more simple for the previously unbanked population to access banking infrastructure in one space.

Government buy-in

Many super apps work closely with leaders in their country, making it easier for the apps to scale. In fact, after Gojek’s founder Nadiem Makarim resigned as CEO of the company in 2019, he joined the Indonesian government as the Minister of Education and Culture. The company has also made contributions to the country’s GDP by directly increasing the living standards of its drivers.

In the case of Singapore’s Grab, which is available across most of Southeast Asia, the company actively works with different governments to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship and regularly participates in pro-nationalist marketing. The Chinese government also works closely with large corporations, with many senior executives being official members of the Chinese Communist Party.

By contrast, governments in the West are actively working on breaking up monopolies through strict regulation and tight data security laws.

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