Jan 19 2023

What Are Superapps, and How Can They Improve Your Workplace?

Superapps are already very popular in some parts of the world. Now it’s time to recognize their important value in app deployment.

If you’re a tech observer who’s kept a close eye on international markets such as China or the Middle East, you might have heard about the rising success of the superapp, a digital Swiss Army knife that can support a broad array of use cases.

Superapps have yet to make it to the United States in a major way, but lots of companies are getting interested in the model, most notably Microsoft.

But while these apps are broadly targeting the consumer market, there’s a chance your organization is already using a superapp without even realizing it. How can you leverage superapps to suit your IT needs? Here’s what you need to know.

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What Is a Superapp?

Superapps are a type of application that serves many diverse use cases, including productivity, finance, travel and retail. Rather than using several distinct apps, this tool consolidates them into one.

The process is similar to how a web browser replaces a number of use cases on desktop machines that might have previously required dedicated applications. But unlike the web, which is built around open standards, superapps are built around the criteria the app owner has defined. In some ways, superapps are both entirely modern and a throwback to the pre-mobile walled-garden experiences of AOL or Yahoo.

The concept originated in China in the early 2010s with the instant messaging application WeChat. The mobile application from Tencent began as a social networking tool, but its increasingly dominant user base in the country allowed it to expand significantly. This made the apps helpful for both personal and professional use.

Gartner has identified superapps as an important trend that IT leaders should watch for. It forecasts that more than half of the world’s population will use multiple superapps daily by 2027. And while it’s hard to predict how superapps will resonate in the Western market, they have a ton of potential.

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How Does a Superapp Work?

Superapps are designed with diverse audiences in mind. App developers consider users to have wide-ranging needs and technical skills, and while superapps enable complex interactions, they offer a simple user experience.

Three key elements make superapps widely accessible:

  • A simple, easy-to-understand interface
  • The flexibility to be used in multiple contexts
  • An integrated app ecosystem for third-party tools

As part of a WeChat case study from London Business School, WeChat founder Allen Zhang said the secret to the app’s success is its simplicity.

“Before perceiving WeChat as a commercial product, I’d rather picture it first as an impressive work of art. When I started designing user interactions for Foxmail, I complicated everything. It felt wrong because it no longer looked neat,” Zhang said, according to Harvard Business Review. “For WeChat, I now see the necessity of subtraction — making things simpler — and focusing on the product’s aesthetic quality.”

Lori Perri
These superapps can help achieve economies of scale and leverage the network effect of a larger user base and multiple miniapp teams.”

Lori Perri Content Creator and Strategist, Gartner

Superapps offer a similar power of subtraction, making the interface experience better for users. Underneath that simple exterior is a surprising level of depth. Take the example of how WeChat implemented WeChat Mini. Announced in 2017, this application framework enables third-party developers to create their own applications for the service.

The decision to open up its application ecosystem to third-party developers has helped change the value proposition and user experience of the tool. But it’s important to note that WeChat (much like Apple) manages the tool closely. WeChat recently banned ChatGPT-based mini apps from its store because the AI tool is not available in China.

What Are Some Examples of Superapps?

In the years since WeChat came to dominate the Chinese market, technology firms in other countries have embraced the superapp concept. Notable examples include Alipay, Grab and the relatively new Tata Neu, which was specifically designed for the Indian market after WeChat was banned in that country.

Applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Uber have already started to integrate elements of these tools into their systems and are expected to experiment more with them in the coming years. Components of the superapp have also made their way into work-focused applications such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. These applications can extend into third-party app ecosystems, replacing internal functions that might have been handled by a variety of tools.

Major entrepreneurs have also noted the potential of superapps. Elon Musk, for example, cited the concept as a driving factor behind his purchase of Twitter.

READ MORE: Find out how data analytics can improve employee collaboration.

Internal or External Use?

In the U.S., there is a compelling case for superapp uses in retail and financial services markets, where the deep integration could make it possible to purchase goods or shape the digital experience without requiring customers to download a separate application.

However, Gartner expert Lori Perri says superapps are more likely to stay internal and be used as an alternative to intranets. Rather than giving employees several apps to use every day, a superapp could centralize key internal tools under a single application.

“Software engineering leaders also build superapps to provide a more engaging experience for their employees,” Perri writes. “These superapps can help achieve economies of scale and leverage the network effect of a larger user base and multiple miniapp teams. Most importantly, they can improve the UX by enabling users to activate their own toolboxes of miniapps and services.”

The true superpower of superapps is hiding within your existing infrastructure. Consider the setup of Microsoft Teams. It combines and consolidates communication, videoconferencing and productivity tools. In the past, these existed in separate applications, but Teams replaces legacy phone systems and directly integrates with the Dynamics 365 customer relationship management tool, centralizing communications into one workflow. As collaboration tools become more dynamic, they can take on many of the workplace roles that a superapp can, encouraging a more integrated approach.

With many organizations exploring custom tooling and low-code applications, superapps offer a significant benefit, if delivered to employees in the right context. This is particularly true for organizations that are building internal apps for the cloud.

Only time will tell how superapps expand their influence across global markets, but if the technology works for your organization, it’s worth taking advantage.

SDI Productions/Gerry Images

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