Categories
gadgets Technology Reviews

Could we have one app for everything? We ask an expert

Could we have one app for everything? We ask an expert

Super apps can revolutionise your life – but do you want to pay the price, wonders AI and innovation professor David Shrier

Illustration of microchip holding pizza, shopping and dog on a lead

Across Asia, the trend for a single app that does everything – from deliveries to bookings to chatting – is spreading. Known as super apps, they are rumoured to be the inspiration for Elon Musk’s plan for Twitter. Could they take off here – and should they? I asked David Shrier, professor of practice, AI and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London.

Have you tried a super app?
Well, what do you mean by “super app”? I’d say Facebook is a super app – it certainly has super app-like functionalities.

I was thinking of WeChat in China, where in one app you can talk to your friends, pay for groceries, book flights, etc. There’s also Grab in Singapore and Paytm in India.
A super app is just a platform that has a certain core functionality but also allows for mini apps to be built inside, so users can have extra capacities in one space. What makes it easy is a single sign-on, so users don’t need to keep entering login or credit card details.

I don’t trust it, David! It’s the whole Lord of the Rings vibe – “one app to rule them all”, which famously didn’t work out great for Middle-earth.
A lot of people have concerns, myself included. It’s why there was a backlash to Meta – which provides Facebook and WhatsApp – trying to launch a digital currency. I think there’s a broader issue of digital literacy here: when we give up our permissions to a super app, do we really know what we’re agreeing to?

Exactly! Wait, what are we agreeing to?
So a super app will know a lot about you, especially your payment habits. Because of that, it could offer you helpful tailored products – from social events to a credit card that would reduce your repayments. The disadvantage is we create a market power concentration. Suddenly, one of these super app companies is able to decide which goods and services you get to see because it controls the window you look through. And oligopolies tend to raise prices.

How much money makes you happy? We ask an expert

Read more

That seems like a big price to pay for convenience.
Let me make the positive case. Today, Apple, Meta and Google are providing super app-like functionality to our lives. Other companies launching super apps creates choice. The counter-arguments are around cybersecurity – putting all your data in one place is attractive to hackers – and privacy. Does the super app help you understand what rights you’re giving up? Or is it secretly making money from your data? If you look at the privacy policy for TikTok, which is trying to become a super app, you’re effectively handing your personal data to the Chinese government. But many people are willing to make the trade-off. For example, an app that says: “Hey, if you tell us your location right now” – which is an extremely valuable piece of personal information – “we’ll make your commute easier.” That’s called Google Maps.

It sounds as if super apps are inevitable, if they’re not here already. Will our super app future at least be mind-bogglingly futuristic and innovative?
This reminds me of Esther Dyson, the tech investor who famously said something like: “The last example of successful convergence was the clock radio” – ie everything else has been a bad compromise. Think about your wristwatch. The analogue watch is optimised to tell you the time, but it can’t show you messages. A smart watch can show you messages, but not as well as a mobile phone can. So if you have an app that tries to be all things to all people, what do you lose?

Topics

  • Social trends
  • Conversations with experts
  • Social media
  • Data and computer security
  • features
Reuse this content