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  • Vinay Nair

Super Apps in India: What's Really Going Wrong?

Re-watching the delightful Gully Boy recently, I was struck with the reminder of how much Mumbai has changed over the years, and how closely other urban centres have mirrored its transformation. In what is perhaps one of the most insightful scenes in India's Oscar entry and runaway hit, the protagonist Murad spray paints his thoughts on the wall in his very own street graffiti.

"Roti, kapda, makan+ internet" he writes, carefully underlining internet as his more privileged friends look on in slight amusement.

Murad's simple desire for these four essentials gives us a peek into the minds of countless Indians today. These Indians include not just the tech savvy millennials with ample purchasing power, but also those who may not go to bed hungry, but struggle to make ends meet each and every day.

For them, internet is as imperative as food, clothing and shelter, and often, just like the rest of us, they rely on the former for everything they need of the latter. This dependence probably explains why more and more Indians are now getting their hands on smartphones and signing up for apps: looking for deals and convenient service at the tip of their fingers. As the smartphone market grows in a lightning fast speed, the app developers are egged on to create the best fit for the millions of Indians embracing technology today.

While the tech explosion rapidly unfolds among a multitude of users: rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and learned; app owners must figure out a way to captivate everyone's attention. The rat race is on to figure out the best strategy to get users to spend the most time on a single app, and tech companies are going all out to woo their prospective customers. In this context, the concept of a Super App seems like the perfect fit for India. 

What is a Super App?

A Super App is a mobile application that offers a bouquet of services under the same umbrella interface.

A wide range of options available via such apps include bill payments, movie reservations, transport bookings, hotel deals, food delivery, fashion, gaming and more. The idea is to combine all the essentials of entertainment and convenience under a singular offering to make it easier to use and navigate.

Super Apps in India

For emerging smartphone markets like India, this seems like a great trend for several reasons, at least on paper.

That is why the likes of PayTM and Flipkart, among others, have all made a beeline for a larger share of their users' spendings via diversified offerings. Even though PayTM has managed to see some success with its rollout, it has not been as dazzling as one would have hoped. 

After all, in the past decade our neighbour China has seen tremendous success of this concept as WeChat has taken over people's smartphones with their multitude of offerings.

Naturally, a similar blow up was expected in the Indian market as well. Considering how rapidly super app giant Tencent popularised its WeChat family of app-based services, it was easy to assume that a similar model would work in India. As the two most populous countries in the world and neighbours, India and China have some definite demographic similarities, and this should indeed have lent itself to a shared affinity for super apps. 

Besides, a large chunk of India's smartphone market belongs to lower-end smartphones, most of which come with a space crunch. With a super app, the storage issues are often taken care of, making it a great solution for the Indian populace. Moreover, as smartphones reach the hands of everyone these days: including the illiterate and the technologically challenged, the need for a unified experience is enhanced further. For them, having an umbrella of apps that are simple to navigate is naturally a godsend. So, theoretically, super apps are the perfect solution for the Indian market. 

Ever since Tencent attained monumental success with WeChat in China and beyond, Super App became the newest buzzword in mobile tech, and for good reason. As more apps in China began to follow in the footsteps of the mighty WeChat, app developers operating in other neighbouring countries also began to sit up and take notice. Indonesia came up with the reasonably successful Go-Jek and Myanmar lapped up the Vietnamese app Zalo. So exciting was this trend that top publisher Bloomberg concluded that these super apps had the power to change cities and lift up economies. In the middle of all this, India's engagement with this innovation has remained slightly hit or miss, never quite taking off despite ardent efforts by its backers. Besides PayTM and Flipkart, other app majors like Airtel, Jio and formerly Hike have all attempted to forge the perfect ecosystem. Yet, no one application has been able to ape the effect WeChat has had on its users.

Why Aren't Super Apps Working In India?

There are primarily two categories of reasons why super apps have only been met with a lukewarm response: One category deals with the mindset of Indian users, while the other reflects the strategic failings of the tech companies.

Indian Users Prefer Choice Over Brand Loyalty

While I do feel that the companies are yet to perfect the right strategy to blitz into the market, their lack of success has a deeper reason than that alone. The fact of the matter is that the Indian people like having a choice, in everything from biscuits to bags. They prefer to compare prices across platforms and get the best deals for themselves. Since most Indians are such pros at deal hunting, it becomes difficult for a single platform to deliver the best deal on each and every product and capture their attention. This is a major factor that explains the lack of success they have experienced so far.

Indian customers rarely show clear brand loyalty to a specific service provider. Instead, they like to scout both sides of the camp to see what benefits them the best.

Therefore, even if a company, say Flipkart, is indeed providing them the best deal with one of their products, an Indian user will go and check out Amazon too, and maybe cash in some discount coupon they had managed to get their hands on. That way, they maximize their utility at the least possible prices, and that is not always possible via a single platform.

Selfish Strategizing By App Companies

While business is all about maximizing one's self interests and profits, cooperation often goes farther than an ambitious solo climb. As companies try to grab the largest market share and move ahead of competitors, they end up compromising on an essential element of a good Super App. No one company can make the best of everything in a short period. Therefore, instead of being restricted to "walled gardens", they must cooperate in a spirit of synergy and symbiosis. However, in reality, most of these app companies are recalcitrant to share their APIs and SDKs with fellow players. Instead, they end up developing a subpar version of the original to be incorporated into the umbrella app, and this takes away from the user experience.

Besides, every company is trying to create its own version of every single offering.

For example, instead of collaborating, PayTM and Flipkart try to build use cases that are beyond their primary areas of expertise. Payment major PayTM comes up with a PayTM Mall for e-commerce, while e-commerce major Flipkart comes up PhonePe for payments. As a result, they only end up fragmenting the market instead of capitalising on what each does best.

A major reason why WeChat saw the kind of success it did, was because it was smart with its feature launch strategy.

Every major new offering was hyped up and promoted in a way where users themselves were excited enough to spread the buzz to their friends and families themselves.

An example of a similar buzz would be Google Pay's recent game promo in India. Almost all of India was swept up in the frenzy of the Diwali game by Google Pay, asking each other to download the application and send payments in the hope of getting that elusive "Rangoli". Sadly enough, none of the super app contenders of India have gone all out like this.  Instead, they have often overplayed their hand, like PayTM, launching one feature after the other, without letting any one get deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of users.

This poor engagement strategy has meant that users just were not sufficiently hooked to get on these apps and continue using them.

The Road Ahead for Super Apps in India

As we have already seen, e-commerce, telecom and payment companies have been the most tenacious in their quest to become India's first wildly popular Super App. However, as I see it, payment players have an edge over both telecom and e-commerce companies. They already have considerable insight into their users' spending data and can channel them strategically to reap the most benefits. 

Of late, Google Pay has peaked in popularity and user activity, thanks to their successful and buzz-worthy Diwali game. If they were to expand into a super app with the correct strategy, I feel that they would have a whole lot of takers. PayTM already has its stakes in the game with transport booking services, hotels, and e-commerce under the app umbrella. If there is an existing app that can possibly take the crown from PayTM, it would likely be GPay.

Of course, there has been a lot of talk about WhatsApp entering the fray as well. While I am extremely optimistic about the top messaging app, I do have a few concerns. Despite having a very high daily active user rate, WhatsApp has so far not really tried to evolve into a Super App. Even if it is trying now, it is probably moving a tad too slow for my taste. Besides, since WhatsApp is not a paid application for most people, it might be slightly harder for them to get users to spend than it is for traditional payment apps.

Even though the situation does not seem extremely promising as of now, I feel that the important thing is to devise the right strategy to tap into the Indian market.

This will make sure that that the solution adequately matches the need. If that's done correctly, super apps will fit the Indian scene just right, and who knows, we might have an Indian contender for WeChat soon enough!




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