Building Super Apps: 4 Key Traits That Make Them Super Around the World (But Doom Them in the US)

Updated on :June 18, 2024
By :Darren Mathew

Smartphones didn’t exist 20 years ago, but by the next decade, we could have more phones around the world than we’ll have people. Mobile devices are everywhere. But more than just being our preferred way of accessing the internet, their presence and form — with trends like mobile-first — have fundamentally shaped our digital experiences. 

We use our phones for everything these days, from ordering food to finding life partners. But although smartphones are integral to how we interact with the internet, the physical devices themselves aren’t the be-all and end-all to internet technology.

That’s because, between our phones and the mystical realm of the internet, there is an invisible but persistent veil that separates the two worlds. 

I’m talking about software. 

More precisely, about apps—bits of software that encode the immense possibilities of the internet into single taps and swipes. Apps are equally essential for our digital experience (if not more), but not all apps are made equal. 

In the eastern world, a new breed of apps is emerging, challenging the conventional understanding of what a mobile application even means. These have been dubbed ‘Superapps,’ and their wider adoption could change the software world forever.

What Even Are Super Apps?

Super apps are applications that combine the functionality of multiple apps under a single roof. In the US (as well as the west in general), we have individual apps that each achieve a particular goal. Social media apps help us connect with our network, cab-hailing apps help us get places, instant messaging apps ease communication, you get the point. 

What is a Super app

As consumers, we have come to expect apps to be doing the one thing they promise and nothing beyond that. 

However, there aren't any hard rules to confine apps within such expectations. Super apps are applications that typically do all of the things mentioned above and then some, all under a single interface, well within a single app. 

One of the best examples of a Super app is China's WeChat. 

WeChat or Weixin (as called in China) started out as a humble messaging app that has now turned into a ubiquitous app experience. 

Currently, the world's sixth-largest social media app with around 1.2 billion users, WeChat's market presence and influence shouldn't be ignored. WeChat offers a whole host of services (at least within China), everything from payments to instant messaging and food delivery to ticket bookings, to name a few. 

The average person in China uses WeChat for almost everything they can do with their phones. Its presence and utility are eerily universal.

What Makes Super Apps So Appealing?

It shouldn't be hard to imagine the appeal of such an idea and it might be worth breaking down what makes Super apps so appealing, both for the users that use them and the companies that built them. 

Why are super apps so appealing to consumers?

It should be a no-brainer for anyone who has ever used a smartphone. Think about a one-stop solution for all your digital needs, a single app that does it all. 

Undoubtedly, Superapps are extremely convenient, providing an incomparable user experience that traditional apps are just too fragmented and limited to match. The ease of use is not just a plus on the UX side though; some believe these apps could be giving their native states an economic edge (more on that later). 

But it makes complete sense from a consumer's perspective. Rather than downloading, registering, and maintaining a dozen apps, users obviously prefer using a single one that does it all. Or at least does as many things as it can. 

Why would app development companies want to build Super apps?

Super apps are undoubtedly a lucrative opportunity for the companies that build them. Once a super app gains popularity, its parent company inherits the power to roll out almost any feature or service they might prefer. 

These could be services that would have otherwise struggled to take off on their own. But when introduced via an app that already enjoys market-wide use, the story is much different. 

In this sense at least, companies that own Super apps can roll out any feature they prefer with guaranteed adoption. 

With such near-infinite potential, the very idea of building a Superapps has mobile app development companies drooling around the world.

Super apps tie together an unmatched user experience and an immense market potential, making them extremely appealing to both—the consumers that use them and the companies that build them. 

But as the world makes ever greater strides towards complete digitization, one super app at a time; it might be worth asking if Super apps are any good for these growing economies.

'WeChat For Business' is a Thing, and it is Bigger Than You Think

Speaking of Superapp's economic edge, it is worth trying to imagine them as diverse marketplaces in themselves. WeChat, for instance, offers multiple ways for small businesses to set up 'WeChat shops' within the app. 

It does so by allowing users to register as a business, offering flexibility on both the business and the consumer end. WeChat allows businesses multiple ways to feature themselves and their products—like setting up mini-websites within the app. For consumers, businesses get to choose if they wish to pursue a services-based or a subscription-based model, offering greater flexibility with payments and adoption. 

Types of WeChat Business accounts

WeChat also allows companies to build "mini-programs," essentially apps within the app. Opening up its platform to third-party developers creates a diverse ecosystem with boundless possibilities. 

The key takeaway here is that Super apps are an excellent opportunity for businesses since they provide a tightly integrated ecosystem populated with engaged and trusting consumers. 

Just imagine setting up an online store in a digital marketplace so pervasive, it already contains the bulk of the users you would like to reach. What's more, is that it is deeply integrated with your user's preferred payment method and allows you to reach out to them via social platforms that are part and parcel of the same ecosystem. 

The level of cohesion Super apps can create is beyond anything we have seen within traditional digital environments, and it generates an all-new online experience that is equally novel and difficult to match. 

They offer a unique opportunity to small businesses, allowing them to participate in a massive digital marketplace while also helping them reach out to their localized customer base. Super apps can go a long way when it comes to using mobile apps for expanding small businesses. 

Who is Building Super Apps and Why?

Envying the success of existing Super apps, it is no surprise that companies and nations want in on the action. Consequently, many emerging countries already have multiple Superapps fighting for supremacy within the local ecosystem.

Super apps in developing economies

For instance, India has recently emerged as one of the world's largest Super app ecosystems with contenders such as Paytm, Wallmart-backed Flipkart-PhonePe, Reliance Jio, Tata's Super app, and many more. Southeast Asia is witnessing its own Super app battle with giants like Grab, GoJek, and Sea competing for supremacy. Latin America is rising as a fertile ground for Superapps as well, having produced players like Rappi and Magalu.

It's worth pointing out that among the examples mentioned, there is a pattern emerging. 

Super apps proliferate within developing economies that digitize rapidly with a mobile-first focus. 

While a lot of these apps have enjoyed massive investments from western benefactors, many would prefer to go public on their own as well.

Super apps have come to play a vital role in developing economies. They act as catalysts for digitization by making mobile technology more accessible for emerging markets and accelerating the adoption of essential digital services.  

What Makes Super Apps Click Around the World, But Not in the US?

At this point, it is easy to wonder:

If Super apps are so amazing, why don't we have more of them in the west? What's so special about the developing markets that makes them more suited for these behemoths? 

Well, some apps in the west have come close. Giants like Uber, Amazon, and Facebook are worthy contenders, but despite their efforts, they still aren't there yet, especially when we talk about multi-niche, absolute market domination like that of WeChat. 

The mystery behind America's missing Super app can be as expansive as these apps themselves. Still, it is worth recognizing the key traits that make Super apps incredibly popular worldwide but doom them in America (and the west in general).

1) Super Apps are Built to Serve a Specific Market

The digital landscape varies drastically around the globe. Users from different parts of the world have uniquely different expectations and needs, and thus no single solution is suited for them all. 

Western markets like the US have been around for a while, they have matured considerably, and their users have accepted the 'single app - single use case' approach. Developing markets like India, on the other hand, are still emerging. They don't have clearly defined user expectations but are rapidly digitizing nonetheless. In countries like these, Super apps establish themselves by implementing novel, often market-specific solutions.

Consider the case of mobile-based payments. One common (but not universal) feature of Super apps is that they start out by offering a popular service like messaging or cab-hailing and later leverage their platforms to introduce new services, most notably mobile-based payment services.  

Such an approach works really well in markets and countries where the banking sector remains underdeveloped. In the US, on the other hand, consumers are already comfortable with the traditional banking system, resulting in greater trust for debit & credit based payments over mobile-based transactions. 

That's just one example of how market conditions and expectations shape the growth and adoption of mobile apps. Since much of the western market is already digitized, there simply aren't enough niches for a Super app to fill in.

2) Battle of the Monopolies  

Another major hurdle for Super apps in the US are existing Tech giants. The western market has already consolidated in the hands of a few strong players which can become a major challenge to existing and upcoming Super apps. 

Consider building a Super app that offers e-commerce and social media services in the west. Amazon here controls much of the world's e-commerce while Facebook has the majority of social media under its belly. To have a super app that did both, either of the two companies would have to be assimilated or taken over by the other, or a newer player would need to challenge them both at once. Needless to say, both possibilities are astronomically rare.  

Tech Giants are actually in a very unique spot in terms of building Super apps. Their massive size and universal prevalence might put them in the perfect spot to become Super apps themselves. But giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, etc., have built their business around specific services and business models; venturing into other areas, often dominated by other giants, can be a disastrous move even for the big players.

In this sense at least, Monopolies are a huge hurdle for Superapps in the west.

3) Government and Public Support

Software companies and mobile apps do not exist in a vacuum; they are built and deployed in a specific socio-cultural backdrop that shapes and influences these companies and apps. Super apps are no different. 

Political support plays a huge role in building apps the size of Super apps. In the US, tech giants and government institutions are stuck in a perpetual tug-of-war of power. Whereas, in places like China, tech companies openly admit of 'helping out' the government if the need arises. 

Every super-app invariably collects loads of data and thus gains unmatched power; no government would allow such an affair unless they were to benefit from it equally. Since that's not the case in the US (for the most part at least), political regulations can become a massive challenge for Super apps. 

The alarming amount of data Super apps collect is a concern for their users as well. 

Today, tech giants are already too big for the average consumer to be at peace with their pervasive reach. 

Giants like Tencent (the company that owns WeChat) already harvest, process, and share consumer data with governments. If left unchecked, Super apps could pave the way for rampant surveillance capitalism—they are doing so already in China.

Both the governments and the people in the west have severe concerns against the rise of Super apps. While conversations around issues like privacy and consumer rights might be comparatively rare in developing markets, they have become a significant talking point in the western world. 

The rise of Super apps that could control a substantial share of the market is only likely to exaggerate these concerns, causing greater alarm and even resistance against them among the public.

In their current shape and form, Superapps could pose a significant threat to western values of democracy and free markets unless we make some monumental efforts to regulate and manage the companies that can build them. 

Without such a shift, the odds of consumers ever accepting a universal Super app in America are near zero.

4) Technical challenges with building Super apps

A quick browse through Quora can clarify that beyond just these macro-factors like market forces, government-corporate collaborations, and battling monopolies, there are also a ton of minor technicalities that influence the birth and rise of Super apps. 

For instance, one Quora user pointed out the differences between the UX philosophies of America and China. In the west, we generally tend to adopt a minimalist and 'clean' approach towards UI, incentivizing well flushed out single-feature apps. A 'feature rich' approach to UI design is more popular in the east, supporting more jack-of-all-trades types of apps. 

Another user stated that the Chinese mobile market boomed rapidly, with hardware manufacturers pumping out tons and tons of cheaps phones into the market. These certainly helped with the digitization of China, but on account of being so cheap, the phones often had significant hardware limitations, most notably a lack of disk space. 

Dealt with precious little storage spaces and highly customized, barely-optimized OS skins, the Chinese consumers were left with no choice but to opt for single apps that offered multiple features. Having separate apps for individual features simply wasn't an option.


Like every other piece of revolutionary tech, Superapps are a tricky one. They present an entirely novel digital experience that could redefine mobile applications, but in doing so, they also pose significant threats and challenges to the ecosystems that gave birth to them. 

Super apps might grow to become capable enough to replace entire operating systems in the future. They could offer boundless opportunities for businesses and limitless options for their consumers, but they can't do any of that without disrupting the current mobile app market trends we have gotten so familiar with.

The global future of Super apps remains uncertain, but as they strengthen their grip across certain parts of the world, they are likely to challenge the present Tech Giants and introduce a brand new approach towards building apps and software. Maybe it's time we paid as much attention to building ecosystems as we do to building apps; perhaps then, Superapps will cease to feel less like anomalies within a tradition and more like respectable alternates within their own right.

Darren Mathew
Darren Mathew

Darren is a writer passionate about Technology, Business, and the evolving relationship between the two. He often tries to bring intriguing perspectives to otherwise familiar ideas, striving to help his audience reimagine the ever-changing tech landscape. He works as a blogger and content marketeer at GoodFirms—a leading review and rating platform built to help brands pick the right service providers for them.

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