Building superapps: Think Batman, not Superman

Published on the 19/07/2023 | Written by Heather Wright

The role of employee superapps…

Jason Wong has a message for Australian and New Zealand companies looking to capitalise on the super app trend: Think Batman, not Superman.

Superapps were identified by Gartner as a top strategic technology trend for 2023. Combining the features of an app, a platform and an ecosystem in one application, superapps provide not only their own set of functionalities, but also a platform for third parties to develop and publish their own mini-apps on. Think WeChat in China, AliPay, or Japan’s Line, or delivery-plus platforms including Gojek and Grab.

Gartner is bolshy about the future for the apps, which align with moves towards composability and the democratisation of digital offerings in organisations. It has forecast that more than 50 percent of the global population will be daily active users of multiple superapps by 2027.

“The key thing is not to throw everything in there. You have to start off being very focused.”

Wong, distinguished VP analyst on Gartner’s employee experience technologies team, told iStart he’s seeing an increase in the number of companies looking to adopt the superapp concept not just for consumers, but for employees and partners too.

In fact, it’s the workforce where Wong believes the real untapped opportunity for superapps lies.

He notes frustrations with mobile apps for employees. Whether it’s having apps that you only use once a year – or even less – cluttering up your device, or lack of ease in accessing the capabilities and services.

“What we are seeing now is very large organisations like Walmart building superapps,” he says.

The Me@Walmart app brings together personal and work needs for Walmart associates into a single app enabling them to manage their work schedules, request time off, swap shifts, chat, look at their pay stubs, take Covid-19 health assessments and more.

Systems integrator Wipro’s MyWipro, meanwhile, has more than 40 mini-apps for Wipro contractors and consultants, providing access to expense reimbursement, training, client support and other tools.

“We believe more superapps will emerge in the marketplace. It just makes sense from a consolidation perspective and follows the trend we’re seeing in terms of how organisations want to rearchitect their applications to be more composable, decomposing monolithic, heavy, full-stack integrated applications into microservices, APIs and on the front end, micro front-ends and different design patterns,” he says.

“And it aligns to trends around different pockets of development happening across the enterprise to build out little apps and automations – how they get surfaced will likely be through a superapp of some sort.”

But there’s a big trap for companies looking towards superapps – one that makes the difference between a superapp and a bloated, likely less used, app: Superapps aren’t about adding a lot of features into a single app. Instead, they’re about creating what is effectively an app store in the app.

“The idea of a superapp is very appealing for a lot of organisations. When I talk to clients they’ve often identified 20 or 50 ideas and want to do all of it at the beginning. But the key thing is not to throw everything in there. You have to start off being very focused.”

And that’s where Batman and Superman come in.

Superman, Wong notes, is a powerful superhero – an alien from Krypton, the yellow sun bestowed the ability to fly, his skin like steel, laser vision and other powers.

“When we think about superapps, we tend to think we need to build an all-powerful app,” Wong says. “But there are different types of superheros and when thinking about superapps, you should not think about trying to become superman, because that’s pretty impossible. But you should think about a superhero like Batman.”

Batman, he points out, is human, albeit a very smart and rich human. It’s his suit which gives him certain superpowers – the armour that protects him, the utility belt with its gadgets, the cape that allows him to glide through the air. He uses what is needed in the moment to fight a particular villain and then discards it when done.

“That’s the idea of a superapp – you build the suit.

“What is the core power, the core value, of your suit – the features users will find most useful, that they will use on a regular basis and also features, such as payment or messaging capability that might be used by other mini-apps.

“And how will you allow different development teams – internal, external, partners or even open to everybody – to build these mini apps that add additional superpowers for the user, who uses your superapp and activates the superpowers – the mini apps – that they need at their discretion?

“That’s the true power of a superapp,” he says.

“If we look at what has made superapps successful, it is that when they started off it was very purposeful.”

The concept was described back in 2010 by Blackberry co-founder Mike Lazaridis, who talked about the Swiss army knife of apps where people would do everything they needed to do – presumably on their Blackberry.

Blackberry never fulfilled that vision, but WeChat and AliPay did because they were able to open up their app to be a platform. Starting as a messaging app and a payment app, respectively, they allowed partners to start building mini-apps, extending the value of the core app and increasing functionality for users.

Wong says beyond workplace superapps, banking, financial services, healthcare, government services and conglomerates with retail arms are the low hanging fruit opportunities, with their multiple interaction points and desire for users to have a more seamless, unified experience.

“From a consumer perspective we see these types of companies pursuing the superapp to consolidate their applications and also to build these mini-apps which are modular and autonomous, so they can have a separate lifecycle to their development and maintenance than the core superapp.

“Then they can have partners as well who can build additional app capabilities,” he says.

Ukraine’s government superapp, Diia, launched in 2020, allows Ukrainians to access a wide array of government services, and carry out tasks ranging from filing taxes and registering marriages to reporting Russian troop movements and damage. It’s also their digital ID and around 70 percent of Ukrainians use the superapp.

“That’s how government agencies should be thinking about modernising their services,” Wong says.

He says tech vendors are also embracing the superapp concept.

Microsoft Teams and Slack have tools to build mini-apps – extensions or plug-ins that integrate into HR systems, IT ticketing systems and other operational systems. Those mini-apps then become active in Teams or Slack enabling users to find the specific app they need.

“So even Slack and Teams’ mobile apps are becoming superapps,” he says.

There’s room in the superapp concept for generative AI too, with chatbot interfaces able to be included as a ‘very purposeful’ mini-app.

“Think beyond the idea throwing everything into one single app, think of platforms, think of composable architecture and then the superapp naturally falls into that. Then the use of AI would really be in terms of that experience layer and turning a graphical user interface, or set of screens, to a conversational interface as a chatbot.”

He’s urging A/NZ companies to look to Asian neighbours where there is already strong acceptance of superapps, and says Chinese vendors are trying to provide the platforms and tools for multinationals operating in Asia to have a common superapp platform.

While that might not go down well with many A/NZ companies, Wong is sanguine, noting: “You don’t have to start from scratch, there is already established technology and patterns that can be adapted to the market.”

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