What Do We Mean When We Say: Superapps
The Dark Lord Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of The Rings thought of it first: One ring to rule them all. So how does the wisdom of the common enemy of all mankind (with apologies to Cicero) relate to IT? What if your entire methodology of building applications was the same?
At the end of last year, business research firm Gartner identified "superapps" — a.k.a. super applications — as a top technology trend for 2023. That sounds like something we all need to know a little bit more about. Especially if someone has already forged a sinister secret tech tool* to "bring them all, and in the darkness bind them."
What exactly is a superapp? Here's how Gartner frames it: "A superapp is like a Swiss army knife, a super-tool with a range of component tools (miniapps) that the user can use and remove as needed." Superapps are in vogue partly because they fit with the "ease of use," all-things-to-all-users paradigm favored by young consumers.
Superapps are not just for kids, though. Gartner analyst Jason Wong says businesses are interested as well: "We also see superapps gaining interest from forward-thinking organizations," says Jason Wong, Distinguished VP Analyst at Gartner. "Those orgs embrace composable application and architecture strategies to power new digital business opportunities in their industries or adjacent markets."
Gartner projects that, by 2027, more than 50 percent of the global population will be daily active users of multiple superapps.
All Things to All Users
If you've googled "What is a super app?" in the last year or two, then you're not alone — I've done it too. Word on the street is that this superlative piece of software got its name from BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis back in 2010.
Lazardis defined a "superapp" as being "a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience."
Elements of what's being described there have been around for a while. Trailblazers like Salesforce and ServiceNow have been creating ecosystems that began with basic offerings, only to pull in adjacent solutions and services that were logical recruits for its community of applications.
Today, super apps are also called digital front doors, and they have evolved and led to a mass marketplace of services and offerings made possible via in-house technology and through third-party integrations — lots of them. And there are some big players in the game.
One of the biggest players is TenCent, a massive Chinese tech conglomerate and leader in the super app realm. TenCent's WeChat app was initially a messaging app, but in recent years has morphed its billion-plus user app into an ecosystem of services that includes taxi rides, payments/virtual wallets, hotel reservations, games, medical consultations, and more.
Gartner predicts that superapps "will eventually expand to support chatbots, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, and immersive experiences like the metaverse." Think of a seamless virtual world where constituent apps are available depending on your preference.
Some IT firms are already on the leading edge of the superapp curve, with tools and platforms available to help create new superapps. For example, low-code application platforms (LCAPs) already provide completed code samples that can be customized or used as building blocks — or both.
Goals and Guardrails
Superapps will wind up support a variety of functions and processes, and vendors will incorporate them across a wide range of products. Users will access different discrete services from within the same unified environment, supplied by developers who contribute microapps. (In this sense a superapp is reminiscent of a traditional app store.)
One example of both a business goal supported by superapps and an area where they will need guardrails is inclusivity. Apps have to work for all customers all of the time. This means moving physical-world thinking to the digital world and vice versa. Removing impediments to inclusivity will result in an experience that is better for everyone, but will also require careful contemplation.
There are also positive implications — as well as possible pitfalls — for social responsibility. Superapps have the potential to make the world a better place, not just by what they do, but by how they do it. Important cautionary questions might include: Does a superapp aggregate services that consider their impact on the environment?
Take a transportation service: Is it contributing to global warming or using green options like electric cars? Similarly, is a retail-enabled superapp contributing to waste in poor product packaging/shipping or reducing it?
You can't leave out data privacy and security. Certain geographies like Europe, the United States, and Canada have been more protective of personal data than others. Data is a foundational component to the success of a super app. The more data collected, the better the offerings for individuals using it. So, again, superapp builders will need to weave privacy considerations into their apps and address user concerns.
What Users Want
According to Gartner, users will have the ability to shape their superapp experience by choosing which miniapps to use — and when — while inside the superapp: "The key is data sharing and includes simple user authentication, such as single sign-on (SSO) and tracking user preferences or app usage."
While super apps have strong potential to drive revenues, in the end, like any other apps, they'll earn their audience based on the fundamentals of good software development and testing. Superapps themselves will also function as digital guinea pigs. Since the universe of superapps is relatively small, everyone will be watching the first big players to see where they fall short, as well as take note of key strengths.
To ease the mental pain of users saying goodbye to their favorite standalone apps, superapp builders will need to offer an attractive and frictionless marketplace with strong customer appeal. Every designer knows that a great app layout has a major impact on user satisfaction and sustained use levels. You must know your audience.
In addition, an effective super app must seamlessly interact with multiple third-party vendors. Then there's the all-important payments piece (and related security). Quality analysts and testers will need to evaluate the app and its integrated systems, and software control will be essential to ensure there are no defects. Finally, your customers need to weigh in: After all, they will be the daily users who will make it or break it.
If all of this comes together as planned. then instead of littering their phone and tablet screens with individual app shortcuts, users will come and go and get all of their digital needs met, within the confines of a single superapp. That may not sound like the preferred experience to some, but it does appear to be what all of us will be doing in the future.
* No one has done that. Nor is anyone likely to, outside the realm of semi-crappy dystopian fiction. We're just doing a bit to introduce the topic.