Software Development

What’s a super app? Here’s what to know about this new digital trend

Think of them like the superstore of the app world, but about way more than just e-commerce. DC-area developers of this emerging technology discuss their function and potential.

A partial view of the Halen app welcome screen.

(Courtesy image)

Over the past few years, you might have heard of a little technology known as a super app.

No, it’s not what Superman uses for crime alerts. Super apps are a way of combining all of your home screen and phone faves into just a few apps for everyday use. In the same way that department and grocery stores attempt to give you everything you need in a single place, super apps are about streamlining and simplifying app use for the average smartphone user.

So, what really are these new super apps? And are they going to take over your phone screen? We’ve got your questions answered.

What exactly is a super app?

You can think of super apps as the superstore of the app world, though it’s not just about e-commerce. Instead of one app with (generally) one capability, super apps host mini-apps that let users complete several functions in one place. In a single app, they can manage banking and payments, travel booking, rideshares, food delivery and more (there are also subsect super apps that, for example, host different mini-apps all centered around finances). To use the above metaphor, it’s the digital version of getting your car parts, groceries, bed sheets and new garden plants all at Walmart — while also giving you the option to nab a hotel booking.

The idea, though, is about more than just adding new, copycat features like Instagram adding a stories button. Super apps want to be the place where you have it all, so users are rarely inspired to download something else.

In Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a team is at work building Treevo, a centralized social media app where users can post on and view any of their social media apps in one place. The goal, according to its founding team, is to create a single, streamlined and centralized social media experience that keeps the audience in a single app.

The Treevo team is focused on social media, though it does have plans to add a digital token, but the gist is the same as super apps trying to let you book an airplane ticket, dinner and a haircut simultaneously: keep the user in one spot.

“What we’re trying to do is build an environment, a one-stop place, where we don’t want our users to leave,” chief creative design officer Michael Ogunyemi told Technical.ly.

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Where did it all begin?

Super apps are relatively new to the US market, but they’ve been present in countries in Asia and other parts of the world for years (particularly for those who were previously underbanked and skipped to digital banking). WeChat, an uber-popular app in China, is the starting point for the popularity of super apps. Initially a messaging app, WeChat users can now also take out loans, pay utility bills, book a taxi, split a bill with a group and more. Like other super apps, WeChat does this by adding mini-apps into its service — a necessity for users as there weren’t quite as many apps available in China as there are in the US market.

But although this is new on the home front, in a sense, apps have already been moving in this direction for years: Uber adding UberEats, Facebook adding a shopping feature, even Spotify’s recent addition of books onto its platform. On pretty much any corner of the internet where you can link up different virtual versions of yourself, you can feel the super app vision take shape. Still, it’s really about creating an ecosystem, a place where users can achieve multiple things and, thus, don’t need to leave.

Why super apps?

The idea behind creating super apps is based on a few different visions: simplifying the app space on your phone, streamlining experiences and (this is a big one) establishing a centralized digital identity. The latter reflects a trend found in some tech spheres that showcase a tremendous amount of potential, touching everything from voting to filing taxes to avoiding catfishing. As ad and cookie laws change, they’re also a way to keep purchases in-house.

When you move beyond the digital identity, the user appeal most see in super apps mirrors anything in a consumer-driven society: quickness, convenience and ease. For tech companies, it means that instead of being threatened by whatever new idea comes next, they can just add it in.

What about security?

Those building super apps have a few different options. For existing giants like Facebook and Uber, the process is more about adding on to what’s already there, be it acquiring new companies to expand their services, reworking existing components or dedicating an in-house team to build out a new feature. For others, like Edward Mbeche, founder of DC-based super app startup Halen Technologies, it’s all about building something from scratch.

He noted that it’s possible to build cyber into every element and, instead of offering your personal info to six different sites, you only have to worry about someone accessing your info from one or two apps. But this is the double-edged sword of super apps: if there is a breach, you might be exposed, depending on where information is stored.

Mbeche is tackling this by doubling down on cyber in his build, but it’s no easy task. Halen is working on building a super app based on a franchise model, so each mini-app company is owned and controlled by a local person, making things even more complicated.

“The super app is very difficult to build,” Mbeche said. “Every little thing has to be protected because you’re building this thing that is so humongous.”

When’s all of this happening?

Officially, super apps aren’t here in the US yet, existing right now as works-in-progress or something happening behind the tech giants’ closed doors. But it’s certainly a space to watch as the world below our fingertips continues to grow.

Still, some are skeptical about their future in the US, noting that the needs of consumers in China at the time super apps came to be are different than the average contemporary US smartphone users’. With high-powered phones boasting plenty of storage space, others question if super apps are actually necessary.

But for supporters and other observers, super apps cannot be dismissed so quickly.

“The super app is the future,” Mbeche said.

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