Super-apps are starting a new digital battle – will they deliver real benefits?

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Image by kentoh | Bigstockphoto

Super-apps are the next goal for the digital world, at least for the moment. As the number of apps rises above 3 million, something must change.

It is not just fintech that is seeing this disruption; it is spreading across all sectors. And it is based on the mantra of Marc Andreesen and others that there are two ways of making money in the digital world.

Bundling and then unbundling.

Fintech is undoubtedly leading the arenas racing to create super-apps, aiming to provide customers with a single point of access. From there, so the thinking goes, customers will have a seamless, secure and sunny experience. As your brand becomes more attractive, the customer experience improves. And you knock your competitors into the darkness of ‘also-rans.’

Super-apps are wonderful in principle. The customer wins, the company wins and the ecosystem that sits within the super-app wins. That’s a win-win-win.

Airlines are following suit, proving that this trend is not just about fintech. Recently Malaysian budget airline Air Asia announced that 20 airlines have signed up to its super-app. This means that it is on the way to creating an online travel agency that includes flights from its competitors.

It is, on the face of it, a bold move. Still, the opportunities of attracting customers from competitors must outweigh the risks of the reverse happening (and online travel agencies make money). Budget airlines need to be agile to survive – and therefore need to be bold.

Big tech, too, is beginning to see that super-apps are an opportunity and are joining the ranks of the likes of PayPal and WeChat (the super-app trend first emerged in Asia and, notably, China some years ago).

There are precedents, however, that show that super-apps are tricky to build effectively. Way back when the idea of doing away with paper for bills was a topic we discussed (it’s true), every company produced its own electronic bill. Then the conversation turned to the fact that this meant many different electronic bills were delivered to customers. So, the early movers decided that a portal was needed through which customers could see and manage all their bills.

This was an excellent idea, but the fundamental problem is that companies are always unwilling to be as open as they need to make this model a reality. Things may change when we approach the outer edges of the Metaverse, but it was certainly true back then. It is changing now, through necessity, but probably not fast enough.

What will almost certainly happen is that companies like PayPal will succeed to a certain extent, producing a compelling and (hopefully) intuitive app that will look like a portal but will keep customers firmly in the PayPal ecosystem. And competitors out.

It isn’t easy to see the goal of a few super-apps being all that appear on your phone being achieved. The big players will probably happen to create ‘big apps that become a walled garden of sorts. Apple will certainly like that idea.

Until, of course, the cycle turns and companies start differentiating themselves by unbundling – again.

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