In this photo illustration, Elon Musk’s photo is displayed on a phone screen in front of a computer screen displaying the new logo of ‘Twitter’.
Harun Ozalp | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
When Elon Musk was in the process of buying Twitter last year, there was a lot of debate about his plans for the app.
In October, the billionaire said buying Twitter was an “accelerant to creating X, the everything app,” without providing further details. But it did spark comparisons with China’s WeChat, the messaging service run by Chinese giant Tencent.
On Monday, Musk officially changed Twitter’s famous bird logo to an “X,” marking his push to change the platform into something more than just a social media service.
“In the months to come, we will add comprehensive communications and the ability to conduct your entire financial world,” Musk said late Monday, re-iterating that the acquisition took place to accelerate the move toward the “everything app.”
Newly-appointed CEO of the company Linda Yaccarino said “X is the future state of unlimited interactivity – centered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking – creating a global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities.”
These goals laid out by Musk and Yaccarino sound very much like the idea of a “super app” which was pioneered in China and has taken off in other parts of Asia.
Super apps refer to a type of app that allow users to carry out multiple functions without having to leave the app. For example, an app might include social media functions, payments, hotel and flight bookings and taxi hailing.
The biggest super app in the world is called WeChat which is run by Chinese technology giant Tencent and has over 1.3 billion users.
WeChat is primarily an instant messaging app like WhatsApp. But it is also has payments and users can access other apps within it such as e-commerce and banking.
While China pioneered the super app, the idea has taken off in other parts of Asia. Singapore-headquartered ride-hailing firm Grab has expanded into other areas like food delivery and payments. South Korea’s Kakao is another example.
Musk has likely taken inspiration from WeChat, an app he called “great” last year. Musk said there is no WeChat equivalent outside of China.
“I think that there’s a real opportunity to create that,” Musk told employees. “You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so useful and so helpful to your daily life. And I think if we could achieve that, or even close to that with Twitter, it would be an immense success.”
WeChat took off in China because of the unique internet landscape there, one where many American online services such as Twitter and Google are blocked. This has given a chance for homegrown technology firms to establish dominance in the internet space.
Tencent is one of these. With WeChat it operates the biggest messaging service in the country. WeChat Pay is one of the two biggest mobile payments services in China, the other being Alipay which is run by Ant Group, an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Alipay itself is also another super app.
Tencent has managed to create an app this size because it runs its own payments and social media service. But the company has also invested in other major companies like e-commerce firm JD.com and and food delivery company Meituan. This has allowed Tencent to integrate their services into WeChat. Tencent is also one of the world’s biggest online gaming companies and that has given it further content to put within WeChat.
Developers can also create so-called “mini programs” within WeChat. These are stripped down versions of full apps but it means a user doesn’t have to download dozens of other apps and can just use WeChat for nearly everything.
In parts of southeast Asia, ride-hailing firm Grab has expanded into financial services and food delivery, in the absence of a plethora of rivals.
Creating a super app in the U.S. or Europe may be much more of a challenge. Online payments, an area Musk wants to push into, are fragmented with no single company dominating the space. U.S. and Europe still rely heavily on debit and credit card systems of payment. Payments in China are done with a quick response or QR code, which is different to the U.S. and Europe.
In ride-hailing and food delivery, there is big competition. Naturally, Musk’s X will be a challenger to other social media companies like those under Meta’s umbrella. That could make collaboration with other firms tough.
These are just some of the challenges and that’s without going into areas such as competition in advertising and who owns the data in the event X collaborates with other firms.
But also there is an opportunity for X in that Musk sees it more as a broader communication app rather than just short posts. He has dramatically increased the character limits for posts for people who subscribe to Twitter Blue, for example. That could be a starting point, to turn Twitter into more of a communication tool that keeps users hooked. Then Musk could think about adding other tools like payments that he has already hinted at.
Ultimately though, trying to turn X into anything like WeChat is going to be a mammoth task, not least because the factors that has helped the Chinese app’s success — whether its a mobile-first market in China or a more concentrated number of players in the internet space — are not present in the U.S. or Europe.