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The most valuable real estate in the world is not in Hong Kong, Manhattan, Knightsbridge or Monaco. It’s in your pocket.
Your smartphone’s home screen has space for about 30 apps, depending on the display size. There are more than two million apps in Apple’s App Store and nearly 3.5 million on Google Play vying for those slots. The prize for landing one is huge: according to App Annie, a market data company, consumers spent $143bn on apps last year, consuming trillions of hours of screen time.
No wonder, then, that tech companies are racing to turn themselves into “super apps” — one-stop shops for a range of services, designed to entrench their app in your life.
Uber, Bolt, Grab and Gojek all claim to be super apps for transport, food delivery and logistics. PayPal, Klarna and Revolut hope to be financial super apps. Spotify is on its way to becoming a super app for audio, adding podcasts and chat rooms to its music library. Pitches for the “next super app” arrive in my inbox almost daily. It is a trend I fear is annoying for the user at best and hostile to new competition at worst.
The grandfather of super apps is Tencent’s WeChat. In China, it’s used for everything from messaging and gaming to food delivery and paying the rent, and has some 1.25 billion users. But WeChat’s position in China is unique and will be hard to replicate. It launched in 2011, just as smartphone sales in China exploded. With mobiles serving as most Chinese users’ gateway to the internet, WeChat fulfilled a similar role to web portals such as AOL, Yahoo and CompuServe in the 1990s in the US.
Super apps are also succeeding in other emerging mobile-internet markets, such as south-east Asia, where Gojek and Grab dominate. But US and European super apps launching today find themselves in a totally different online world. Smartphone penetration is reaching saturation and, by some estimates, the number of apps we each use has peaked.
Data from SensorTower and Pew suggest US smartphone owners used an average of 46 apps a month in the first half of this year. That is down from a pandemic high of 48 in the second quarter of last year and only a couple more than were used each month in 2019.
I sympathise with app developers’ predicament. App stores have become overcrowded, and the instinct to maximise revenue from existing customers will only have been accentuated by Apple’s restrictions on targeted advertising, which make it harder to hook users.
Competition is also asymmetric. A few Big Tech companies are dominant enough to colonise multiple places on home screens. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, as well as Tencent and ByteDance in China, have all succeeded in building a “family of apps”, each with a more focused function.
But developers that respond by bundling ever more features into a super app risk frustrating users. Single-purpose apps are faster and easier to navigate. By contrast, the super-app approach involves cramming as many features as possible into one bloated piece of software. Speed and responsiveness are vital on a mobile. A Deloitte study found a 100-millisecond improvement in the loading speed of a mobile ecommerce site improved conversions by as much as 8 per cent and customers spent 10 per cent more.
Site performance data from Google show users can lose focus if they are made to wait for more than a second for an app to load. 5G networks may support “heavier” apps, but if users have to spend several seconds tapping through an overcomplicated interface to find the function they want, that will deter them from coming back.
Spotify’s interface, for instance, has become cluttered and confusing since it added podcasts. Google tried to foist its Zoom rival Meet on every Gmail app user, adding an annoying tab that gets in the way of reading email (it can be disabled). PayPal says it will use personalisation to bring the features each user wants to the fore. But past experience with algorithmically generated content shows it can just end up promoting whatever new services a company wants to sell this month.
This is my real issue with super apps: most solve a problem for the company, not the customer. No property developer would sell a home, then months later stuff it with vending machines. App developers should resist the same temptation.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent
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