back to article Asia's 'superapps' bundle ride-share, food delivery, even financial services – and they're beating big tech

Catch a ride, pay your utility bills, order your dinner, top up your insurance, chat with friends – how many apps did you need to get that lot done? In much of the world North America and Europe your answer could involve a fistful of apps, but in Asia you could do it all in one, thanks to rise of the "superapp". Superapps are …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Perfect!

    For that authoritarian government you live under which thinks privacy is an evil concept.

  2. LDS Silver badge

    Very different mindsets...

    Living in mostly authoritarian countries, Asians may be more ready to accept an "app to rule them all".

    In Western countries, with also stronger anti-trust laws even if not so often well applied, it could be much, much harder to lure people into a single "ecosystem". And it looks to me Japan is also not cited as a country where that works.

    And after all, why I should want it? Just for the convenience, for tasks maybe performed once or twice a year like renewing an insurance? And in exchange let entities like Google and Facebook collect even more data? Again, Asian may be used to entities knowing all about them and obsessive surveillance - we learned it's bloody dangerous.

    Maybe we are also still less bound to apps in our lives - I still find easier to pay with a small plastic card than having to dabble with a 6.2" device that usually get stuck in my pocket. Just, if you never had that plastic card... the hammer/nail relationship applies to mobile as well, especially for people who only had and have the hammer.

    1. Alumoi Silver badge

      Re: Very different mindsets...

      ...it could be much, much harder to lure people into a single "ecosystem".

      Apple, Google and Microsoft would like to have a few words with you.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Very different mindsets...

        Apple, Google, and Microsoft do not run my financial system. Apple and Google offer payment systems, but they just provide the payment method, not all the other financial aspects. Also, I can easily avoid them, and I do. Similarly, none of those companies runs a transportation system; I use someone else's app on their platform for that. Each company does have a monopoly or oligopoly in a few places and each abuses it to some extent, but not to the level that the apps covered in the article do.

      2. LDS Silver badge

        Re: Very different mindsets...

        On WIndows, you have really no need to run just Windows applications. Nor there is a MS "superapp" that can do multiple tasks people usually perform.

        Sure, Office in the long run became the dominant office suite, but it's still just an office suite. Microsoft doesn't own the dominant browser - and in other sector you find other dominant players - like Adobe in the graphic one. Despite the half baked (and because of that) attempts to deliver more features into the OS very few were successful - maybe OneDrive only, but not dominant at all. With a simple Windows installation you can do very little.

        That's true for macOS as well, where Apple owns the OS but there aren't really many Apple applications.

        Maybe Google is more a tightly controlled ecosystem, since it's mostly a Google controlled remote system where you run application from - maybe a Google account is a sort of "superapp" trying to offer you email, maps, storage, communication, etc. etc. from a single source on top of your actual OS.

    2. Jingfa

      Re: Very different mindsets...

      I lived in China from 2012 until 2017 and when I first went there most people seemed to use plastic when buying stuff. A year or so later and Alipay and Wechat pay were becoming ubiquitous. The great thing was that both the buyer and seller needed no more than the App for it all to work. Buying a coffee at Starbucks or getting fruit from an old woman by the roadside out in the sticks was equally easy. If something went wrong with a transaction the refund usually arrived within 30 minutes.

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: Very different mindsets...

        "I lived in China from 2012 until 2017 ..."

        Fine. Sounds interesting. But how do these Superapps differ from what Apple is peddling and Google would like to drag us into?

        I don't even use a smart phone. Have one. Rather slow, confusing, poorly thought out UI. Worse in its way than emacs if that's possible. But from what I see at the supermarkets here in the US you know you're in trouble when someone in front of you in line hauls out a phone to pay for their groceries. Sometimes the transaction goes smoothly, but very often it descends into three or four store people clustering around the register and customer trying to get the damn thing to work. And very likely the customer ends up paying with cash or plastic.

        Do the Chinese do something different? Or do something radical like testing their products before they ship them? Or what?

    3. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Very different mindsets...

      "And after all, why I should want it? Just for the convenience, for tasks maybe performed once or twice a year like renewing an insurance? And in exchange let entities like Google and Facebook collect even more data?"

      I think you overestimate our population. I'm sure most would opt for convenience, given a chance. (I say this as someone who wants to go back to paying cash and doesn't have a loyalty card.)

      But I think a super-app would struggle with competition law.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "tools users perceive as an extension of the OS"

    Oh great. China is going all Borkzilla on us now.

    So, when will WeChat be a required part of Edge ?

    I'm not all that certain that superapps are not going to happen in the West. The new generation is weaned on smartphones. Very few of them do anything on PCs these days. For Pete's sake, Fortnight is being played on smartphones !

    And let's not forget that WeChat is actually the mobile operator Tencent. It had the chops to integrate other apps, it had the position to do so, and it ended up with the government mandate to establish it. It's all of Firefox's (useful) add-ons, but integrated together by law.

    Okay, that won't happen in the West, but as new generations start with smartphones in their little hands instead of keyboards, mice and proper widescreens, well perception is going to evolve, and apps with them.

    I think Borkzilla would kill to have 1.23 billion daily users on smartphones.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Very few of them do anything on PCs these days

      Sadly, that is true for most. But they are the ones computers tell them what to do.

      The ones who tell computers what to do, especially complex things via CAD, simulation and such, only the most trivial can be done on a phone.

  4. DS999 Silver badge

    Beating who?

    Google has almost no presence in China, and while Apple is there they have a much smaller market share than in most western countries due to income disparities. By the same token, WeChat has almost no presence outside of China except for Chinese nationals, so there is little direct competition between them and Apple or especially Google.

    The "kitchen sink" approach kind of reminds one of AOL, back in the day they wanted to do everything from email to messaging to booking travel and so on, but they weren't able to negotiate the shift from dialup to broadband while keeping their userbase within the AOL app.

    WeChat's biggest risk is probably China's recent crackdown on "too powerful" tech companies. A do-everything "superapp" makes them a pretty obvious target and China's leadership doesn't need lengthy court cases with infinite appeals like antitrust cases in the US. They just announce new regulations and everyone has to comply - and they aren't shy about indicting CEOs or freezing assets to force the issue.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Beating who?

      In China, it's all about the eventual coronation of Emperor Xi Jinping.

    2. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Beating who?

      "WeChat's biggest risk is probably China's recent crackdown on "too powerful" tech companies."

      We interpret that in different ways. I see that as an asset for them, in that if China knows it can subsume their operations, either explicitly or through threatening its management, they can use its monopoly to augment state power. A competitive market would mean that they would have to integrate several different companies, increasing the chances that something doesn't work or someone actually tries to make it hard. The operators are in their position because China effectively marked out a monopoly for them to enter, and they know they have no ability to resist, so they will likely remain valuable enforcement arms.

  5. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Communism

    There is no such thing as private corporations in China. Everything is ultimately in control of CPC.

    These corporations are nothing but government departments disguised as legitimate entities to be more palatable to the Western eye.

    Since the competition is artificial, there is not much point in having separate apps - as it is makes harder to do data reconciliation and spying on users.

    All these "crackdowns" is also a theatre. They hope that gullible politicians in the west will copy this behaviour, which would do real harm in a free economy.

    Some party members don't like that apparatchiks driving these "corporations" get to enjoy more spotlight than them, so they are pushing the Pooh to make sure nobody has too much fun.

  6. thejoelr

    Uber sold out of SEA because it was losing badly. Grab is just vastly superior. Grab already provided some other services like food delivery before the pandemic, but really improved that experience quickly. It is agile. It provides a virtual Amex for online shopping. It offers courier services. No one uses the lame chat. But, it is a great experience overall. I can order food, talk with the restaurant if what I want isn't available, watch the delivery on a map with road congestion indicators, leave the delivery person a tip and review... It is successful as a "superapp" because Google kind of sucks at finding restaurants. It may collect a lot of data, but isn't Google accused of the same thing? Etc. It was not the result of some authoritarian regime and isn't evil any more than the other tech giants who harvest data. It is the product of capitalism.

    The other major "superapp" here would be GCash. Made by the fintech arm of a local Telco. It is basically the digital currency. It is easy to get money in and out, you can buy cellular load, pay bills, load up your Grab account. It has insurance, but the conditions make it useless. Maybe Venmo in the US comes sort of close, but is nowhere near as prevalent in day to day life. When Covid aid needed distribution, a local government was able to distribute over half of the funds in less than a day by sending directly to GCash accounts. Again, it is the product of capitalism and not some government scheme. The Philippine government has actually taken a stance against getting involved in digital currencies right now. There was some past exploration years ago, but it went nowhere. They are instead focused on specific targets like banking the unbanked by lowering barriers.

    Lazada and Shopee blew up in the pandemic, but are just online marketplaces (where you can pay with GCash). In that way, the mention of Grab as a superapp is really wrong. You don't live in it, but they do offer multiple services generally based around moving things or people. There are differences from the west in that there's less segmentation or real competition to each app, but that isn't really what made them a success. They were successful because they provided very good products and they were developed for people who only had a phone. The apps are some of the best I have ever seen and are handling highly complex tasks. Am I really supposed to compare GCash to Google Pay? For Grab, I think Uber and everyone are all basically copying the innovation of others as time goes on. For Lazada and Shopee, they filled holes in available services, You can't forget how often products are not available outside of a few select countries. Ebay and others specifically excluded themselves from these markets and so they aren't a thing here. Apple is a huge product here because they sell here. Why is Google only selling phones in 13 countries? Apple makes luxury products, while Google has been aiming at the mid-end market, and yet they don't even sell where that would be successful.

    I can pay a doctor with GCash, do a videocall with Meet or Zoom or Facetime, get prescriptions or test requests. I can have the tests done get results back digitally to send back to the doctor. When I go to do the tests I can call a car with Grab or scan a QR code for payment with GCash in the back of a taxi--contactless transactions. And I can do this without a bank account. There's no WeChat or Kakao here, but there are strong local or regional products taht have grown where the biggest tech companies refuse to do business. These smaller companies are interesting in that they expose that there is plenty of profit to be made here, and because in many cases they provide superior products to those offered by the biggest tech companies.

    I could go on, but I essentially think this article does not understand what it is talking about.

  7. Howard Sway Silver badge

    how many apps did you need to get that lot done?

    One. Firefox.

  8. fuzzie

    "Group of Companies"

    This is exactly the direction I see Facebook heading. They also realised people aren't too keen on one app doing it all. Whether that's for privacy reasons, I suspect not. I suspect it's much more about the illusion of choice, i.e. if I don't like X any more, I can move to Y. And I only do it for that single use case, not upend my entire life, i.e. swapping GMaps for Waze or for WeGo is easier than switching Android to/from Apple.

    What Facebook is now doing is making all the connections behind the scenes, out of sight. Branding has already changed: InstaGram, WhatsApp "from facebook". And more and more things like events and marketplace and payments and business-hosting, are added to existing apps. Other offerings might become separate apps, but behind the scenes is one humongous shared data model into which and from which they all feed. In the mean time people continue to think they're exercising choice.

    I'm starting to believe that we need some regulation that says if you've accumulated more than X amount of data regarding more than Y percent of the population, you must make that data available to third parties on an equal access/non-disciminatory manner. It introduces a return-on-investment calculation compared to "owning it all" and levels the playing field for new entrants into the market. Also players can survive in niche markets, because the data for their niche still has market value.

    1. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: I'm starting to believe that we need some regulation

      We're already doing the opposite.. Priti Patel hails "the end of anonymity online" - that only goes towards tech companies collecting invasive details about everyone.

      And i'm not sure we want to make the data accessible to all and sundry either. I'd rather say delete it and stop bloody collecting it. Don't require login accounts when they are not needed (looking at you, BBC). Don't require login to view websites (facebook, twitter, instagram, tiktok, google)

      1. fuzzie

        Re: I'm starting to believe that we need some regulation

        My underlying assumption with fair-access data sets is that they are suitably anonymised. We have pretty clever ways to do that already, be it cryptographic envelopes or homomorphic encryption. That, of course, still requires someone to set the standards, enforce their application and hunt down and slap the inevitable violators. And all for the sake of a very elusive and hard-to-quantify ideal. We already know how well politicians and the electorate handle abstract notions.

        1. cyberdemon Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: I'm starting to believe that we need some regulation

          I wouldn't be so sure.. There are ways to de-anonymize it (i.e. correlate it) based on the data points you already have about people from other sources. And if there are any holes, once the data is out of the bag, there's no putting it back in. The industrialised cybercriminals of russia/china/india/norks now have even more ammunition to con/blackmail people with.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "Group of Companies"

      "you must make that data available to third parties on an equal access/non-disciminatory manner"

      Wasn't that Ukrainian bloke doing that?

  9. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

    You say "Superapp"...

    Sounds more like a monopoly spanning multiple sectors, combined with a privacy nightmare.

  10. iron Silver badge

    > Catch a ride, pay your utility bills, order your dinner, top up your insurance, chat with friends – how many apps did you need to get that lot done?

    I'd need three apps - the phone app, the SMS app and a browser (Firefox in my case). I could also do much more using just those three apps.

    Why would I want to swap those general purpose apps for a single mega-tracking privacy nightmare app that would lock me in to specific, probably non-local, services?

  11. Blackjack Silver badge

    Hey this sounds familiar; remember Internet portals? How did that turn out?

    People tends to look for price and ease of use, just because they are doing a hundred things on your "super app" doesn't mean they won't try a different app that does a single thing if is cheaper and or easier.

    Also the reign of Apps is not forever, Angry Birds used to be the mobile game everyone played, Internet Explorer used to be the number one web browser and VisiCalc was the main reason why many people bought an Apple ][.

    Having many uses also doesn't make your App last forever and keep being popular.

    Remember Norton Utilities?

    Sure Microsoft Office still exists but has to compete with both LibreOffice and Google Docs (or whatever name Google is using nowadays) that can be used for free.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021