Imagine you can install just one app that can do everything – from ordering food, to ordering cabs, chatting with your friends and booking a spa date.
It is not in the future, it is now. Two major tech companies have developed phone applications known as super apps that can do absolutely everything. Yes, everything!
The most popular, with over a billion users, is WeChat. Created in 2011 by Chinese tech giant Tencent, WeChat started life as a messaging platform.
Now, it is estimated to offer more than one million services through mini programmes, which are apps created by third-party companies and accessible through WeChat.
That means you never have to leave the WeChat App or need another app.
However, most of these services are only available to users in China, which is why you may not have heard of it despite its dominance.
The other main player is Ant Group’s Alipay, which also has more than one billion users and offers 120,000 mini programmes.
With 600 million people spread across the region, South East Asia is a strong contender with half a dozen companies already vying for attention.
Grab, Gojek and the SEA Group are among the biggest and best funded.
Chinese companies Alibaba and Tencent have invested in them, as have US firms including Facebook, Google and PayPal.
Indonesian-based Gojek has grown from a motorcycle-hailing platform to an app offering car rides, payments and food delivery.
Gojek co-chief executive Kevin Aluwi says the region is a natural fit for super-apps.
“Having to only download one single app is something that is probably uniquely appealing to a part of the world where, for most people, the first real experience of the internet happened on mobile.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a company that calls itself a super-app, Mr Aluwi says Gojek isn’t trying to monopolise its users’ time.
“Many super-apps view their objective as to increase the amount of time that customers are actually viewing their app,” he says.
“For us, we want our customers to get in, find the thing they need to solve their problem at that moment and then get out and get on with their lives.”
Super Apps and Their Potential Risk
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says it has found evidence of censorship on WeChat in China and warns this could also happen to overseas users.
“The risks associated with WeChat’s lack of end-to-end encryption is that Tencent and WeChat can have access to any of your data on WeChat,” says Audrey Fritz, who co-authored an ASPI report looking at the Communist Party’s influence on Chinese internet firms.
“They are bound by China’s cyber-security laws to give any data on WeChat or any of their apps to the government if the Communist Party should request that.”
In an interview with BBC, Tencent said they comply with the laws and regulations of each market it operates in, adding that user privacy and data security are core values.
“User privacy and data security are core values at Tencent. We hold ourselves to the highest standards in protecting our users while ensuring we comply with all laws and regulations in the markets in which we operate,” the company said.
Concern over privacy and data security could be among the reasons it has been difficult for these Chinese apps to expand overseas.
Throw in the fact that the domestic market in China is so big, there’s really no need to go anywhere else.