Four years ago, the billionaire head of one of the world’s largest social platforms came up with the concept of turning it into a universal app. In the online manifesto, he wrote that the app would not only be the key to written communication, but would also have audio, video, payment methods, commerce, and more.
The idea was similar to the concept “the app that does everything”, which was recently advocated by Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter. But the dream belonged to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In a 2019 blog post, Zuckerberg described how he would turn WhatsApp into an app that could become a platform for many “private types of services.”
In Silicon Valley, the search for a universal app has resurfaced again and again as technology leaders have sought to expand their digital empires. Zuckerberg did his best. So is Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of Uber. Evan Spiegel, head of Snap, said he wanted to try it too.
However, these initiatives were not successful. CTOs have failed to replicate the magic that abounds in Asia with “super apps” such as China’s WeChat, Japan’s Line, and South Korea’s KakaoTalk. Instead, American tech giants have faced cultural differences, regulatory scrutiny, and a fragmented financial system that have made it difficult to build such apps.
And now Musk, who last week renamed Twitter to X to refer to his universal app, is pursuing the same goal and is likely to face the same challenges.
In the United States, people “are accustomed to using apps for a single service, which makes it a bit disorienting to move to a multi-service app,” said Dan Prudhomme, assistant professor of business at Florida International University. “To some extent, American customers don’t like to feel too dependent on one company for their day-to-day needs.”
Musk has been enamored with the Universal App concept for at least the past year. Weeks before closing $44 billion acquisition of Twitter in October tweeted that your purchase will be “an accelerator for building X, the app for everything.”
July 24 tweeted about the rebranding of Twitter to X and wrote: “In the coming months, we will add end-to-end communications and the ability to manage your entire financial world. The name Twitter doesn’t make sense in this context, so we have to say goodbye to the bird.”
However, Musk has told the public very little about what his app will look like, how it will work, and why people will want to use it. In November, Twitter filed with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crime Enforcement Network to become a payment processor, and employees have been working to build a payment service.
Musk did not respond to a request for comment.
His plan was met with many skeptics. “It led to the destruction of Twitter” and undermined the way people use the platform, said Chris Messina, tech entrepreneur and creator hashtag or label. “It looks like he’s going to create a set of different features and force it on users.”
Much of the desire to create an app for everything originates in Asia, where such apps have flourished for over a decade. In Japan, people use Line, the country’s dominant messaging platform, to store vaccination cards and buy clothes. In South Korea, people turn to KakaoTalk, which started out as a messaging service, to send money and book taxis.
None have been as successful as Tencent’s WeChat, the messaging, social networking and payments app used by over a billion people, mostly in China. WeChat dominates the mobile web and is the one-stop-shop for reading the news, chatting with friends, ordering pizza, or paying rent.
Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have long regarded WeChat as the gold standard for mobile apps.
“If you’re going to China, it’s a lot easier and you’re like, ‘I wish I had this,'” said Ted Livingston, founder of Tencent-backed messaging platform Kik. “WeChat is, in practice, the operating system of everyday life in China.”
In 2013, Snap’s Spiegel also named Tencent as a model for making money. Last year, in an interview with Axios, he talked about Tencent’s continued success with WeChat, saying that Snap is also building a “Snapchat super app.” Tencent last invested in Snap in 2017.
In 2019, after Uber’s initial public offering, Khosrowshahi repeated the mantra of super apps. He said he saw his transportation app as “Transport Amazon” and wanted it to be “the operating system for your daily life in the city.”
That same year, Zuckerberg announced similar ambitions for WhatsApp. Since then, Zuckerberg has added payment and commerce features to Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, though none have become a universal app.
According to the entrepreneur Messina, this may be due to different regulatory and cultural conditions. American tech giants have come under increased antitrust scrutiny from regulators around the world, but Chinese tech companies, with Beijing’s blessing, have prospered even as technological power is crushed.
At a company-wide Twitter meeting in November, Musk was asked about his idea for an app for everything, according to two people who attended the event. The employee pointed out fundamental differences between Twitter and Tencent.
Musk responded that the caller didn’t know what he was talking about before moving on to the next question, according to two participants.
Musk didn’t hold back in his predictions for X. “If done right,” he said in a recent podcast interviewX could become “half of the world’s financial system.”
Linda Iaccarino, CEO of Twitter, is also enthusiastic about the X’s capabilities.
“X is the future state of unrestricted interactivity focused on audio, video, messaging, payments/banking that will create a global marketplace of ideas, products, services and opportunities.” tweeted on Sunday. “Thanks to artificial intelligence, X will connect us all in ways we are just beginning to imagine.”
Ryan Mack He is a technology reporter and focuses on corporate responsibility issues in the global technology sector. He received the 2020 George Polk Award for Facebook coverage and lives in Los Angeles. @RMac18