Oct 6, 2022 - Technology

Musk's "super app" vision

Illustration of a cell phone with Swiss army knife attachments.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Elon Musk's plans for Twitter may go beyond what we think of as a standard social media app, the billionaire teased Tuesday.

Driving the news: Musk's purchase of Twitter, he tweeted, "is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app."

Catch up quick: The concept of an "everything app" or a "super app" — which serves as a hub for multiple services within a single user interface — is based on the model for mobile software that's dominant in China via WeChat, the original super app.

State of play: Musk first began teasing the possibility of creating an everything app in May, just weeks after signing a merger agreement to buy Twitter.

  • Speaking on an investor podcast, he said: “If you're in China, it's basically, you kind of live on WeChat — it does everything. It's sort of like Twitter, plus PayPal, plus a whole bunch of other things. And all rolled into one with actually a great interface."
  • Musk went on to argue that such an app could either be made by converting Twitter or by starting from scratch, "but it does need to happen somehow."

Our thought bubble: Given that Musk looks like he's about to pay a huge premium to buy Twitter, giving him access to a global user base of more than 229 million people, it makes sense he would at least start there.

Yes, but: It will be an uphill battle to transform Twitter, which is now almost exclusively a tool for posting public thoughts and links, into an all-purpose digital services smorgasbord.

  • U.S. users will need very powerful reasons to switch their ride-hailing, payment-sending, goods-purchasing and other behaviors from their favorite current apps to Musk's new product — especially because public perception of Twitter and social platforms has soured significantly over the past few years.

How it works: Not all super apps are built alike.

  • WeChat began as a messaging app, before slowly integrating functions like gaming and payments. China's Alipay started as a digital wallet before adding ticketing and ride-hailing. Indonesia's Gojek app and Malaysia's Grab app started in ride-hailing before adding food delivery and payments.

Musk has yet to lay out a clear vision for the types of features he'd like to explore through his own version of a "super app," but he has hinted at a plan that sounds similar to the roadmap WeChat pioneered.

  • During his podcast appearance, Musk said a super app could include a Twitter-like digital town square "where important ideas are debated," and once user trust is built, payments — whether in conventional money or cryptocurrencies — "can make a lot of sense."

Be smart: Building a super app in the U.S. is tougher than in China because of data privacy concerns, stricter banking regulations and mobile operating systems that make it harder for individual apps to establish their own payment terms independently.

  • In the U.S., the internet economy grew years before the smartphone was introduced, and existing digital service providers developed their own mobile apps separately.

The big picture: Musk isn't the only one to begin eyeing what a super app could look like in the U.S.

  • Earlier this year, Snap Inc. co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel told Axios, for the first time publicly, that the company's long-term plan is to build a Snapchat "super app."
  • That plan is inspired, in part, by WeChat's parent company Tencent, which took a 12% stake in Snap Inc. in 2017.
  • Other apps, like Uber, have slowly begun to shift into other realms, like food delivery and freight shipping.

What to watch: Building a super app requires user trust as well as investment in a developer community that can build new features, tools or even their own apps, using data and software that can be seamlessly integrated into the main app.

  • Snap, like WeChat, has begun to build out developer tools that allow third-party apps — like dating services, ticketing sites and music streamers — to be accessed from within its main app.
  • While Twitter does have a developer platform, it's mostly used to help advertisers integrate their data for better targeting and measurement, not to create consumer-facing innovations and tools.

Go deeper: Snap CEO endorses Elon Musk's "super app" strategy

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