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Super Apps, Explained: What Are These Apps That Do Everything?

Apps like WeChat serve as their own mini app ecosystems that power everyday life in certain parts of the world.

Lisa Eadicicco Senior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Expertise Apple | Samsung | Google | Smartphones | Smartwatches | Wearables | Fitness trackers
Lisa Eadicicco
4 min read
Pony Ma Pays Metro Fares Via WeChat Payment In Shenzhen

 A commuter pays metro fares by using Tencent's WeChat Payment mobile app in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province of China.

Zhao Yanxiong/Southern Metropolis Daily/VCG via Getty Images

There's an app for just about anything you can imagine. But what if you could get everything done with just one app? That's the promise behind so-called "super apps," or apps that run mini-programs and offer multiple services in one. 

Such apps aren't new, but they've been in the spotlight recently thanks to the Department of Justice's antitrust lawsuit against Apple and comments from X owner Elon Musk about his vision for the app formerly known as Twitter. 

The idea behind super apps is simple: Use a single app to chat with friends, call a cab, buy movie tickets, go shopping and more. It's essentially like its own miniature operating system but running inside one app instead of your entire phone. Examples of super apps include Tencent's WeChat and Ant Group's Alipay.

There's a reason why those names (and the term super app in general) may be unfamiliar. It's because super apps haven't taken off in western markets like the US just yet, although Deloitte predicts that could start to change by 2025. Market research firm Gartner also estimates that more than 50% of the global population will use super apps on a daily basis by 2027. 

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What is a super app?

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The WeChat logo

WeChat

WeChat is essentially synonymous with the phrase super app, and it's probably the best illustration of what a super app is. A Bloomberg Businessweek story from 2016 paints a picture of how life in China revolves around WeChat. 

The app goes beyond basic tasks like booking train tickets or sending money to friends, although it can certainly be used for those things. But the Bloomberg Businessweek story shows how WeChat has become its own app ecosystem, describing how business owners use it to manage operations and how trainers provide virtual fitness coaching through the app. The author, Dune Lawrence, even likens living without WeChat to being as awkward as not wearing shoes. 

But in recent years, WeChat's role as a government surveillance tool in China has also come to light, as reports from The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Citizen Lab have detailed. The Trump administration also attempted to ban WeChat over security concerns. 

WeChat may be the most well-known super app, but it's not the only one. Alipay is also popular, boasting that it connects 450 million users on its Google Play Store listing. Alipay may have started out as a payments app, but it now offers everything from the ability to order takeout to even buying pet insurance.  Singapore-based Grab, meanwhile, describes itself as an "all-in-one platform" for deliveries, financial services and booking cab rides. 

While super apps have become a critical part of everyday life in some parts of Asia, the trend hasn't really caught on in the Western market in the same way. But tech giants have certainly tried. Meta (then Facebook) opened up its Messenger app to third party apps nearly 10 years ago in a bid to make it feel more like a platform rather than just another chat app. Apple similarly brought the App Store to the iPhone's Messages app in 2016, and Uber has expanded from being just a rideshare platform to a service for ordering takeout, groceries and alcohol. 

Why are super apps relevant right now?

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The Apple App Store logo

Angela Lang/CNET

Super apps like WeChat have been around for years, but the topic has felt especially relevant recently. The most recent instance stemmed from the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Apple, which claims the iPhone maker is hampering the development of such apps.

"Apple created, strategically broadened, and aggressively enforced its App Store Guidelines to effectively block apps from hosting mini programs," the complaint reads. "Apple's conduct disincentivized investments in mini program development and caused US companies to abandon or limit support for the technology in the United States."

Apple also recently updated its App Store guidelines to clarify that mini apps and mini games must be powered by the HTML5 web language, perhaps signaling that Apple is thinking about the nature of super apps on the iPhone following these accusations.

Social media company X logo

The logo for the social media app X.

James Martin/CNET

Tech giants have also expressed a renewed interest in pursuing super apps in recent years. Musk said in an X town hall last October that he wants to turn the app into a single hub for payments, messaging, video calling and more, according to The Verge. Musk also said in a post on X that he wants the platform to eventually be an "everything app."

Meta announced a partnership with Indian retailer JioMart in August 2022 that makes it possible for WhatsApp users in India to order groceries directly through the chat app, a sign that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has bigger ambitions for WhatsApp beyond messaging.

"Business messaging is an area with real momentum and chat-based experiences like this will be the go-to way people and businesses communicate in the years to come," he wrote in a Facebook post announcing the partnership. 

Only time will tell whether super apps will ever catch on in the US and other Western markets. But if one thing seems certain, it's that tech companies and app makers will likely keep trying. 

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