App stores as gatekeepers

In the US, users and regulators aren’t the only ones wary about data privacy and unregulated monopoly power. Device makers and their app stores also serve as gatekeepers.


Phillip Shoemaker helped build Apple’s App Store and co-wrote its guidelines during his time at the company from 2009 to 2016. During this time, several companies proposed superapps, where they have mini-apps inside of apps—plugins, if you will—and the ability to let users pay for things inside and outside of the app, bypassing Apple’s cut, which is often as much as 30%. But Apple has rules against using outside payment processors. Epic Games, which updated the Fortnite app with a feature that allowed consumers to pay Epic directly for in-app currency at a discount, dragged Apple in court over the legality of Apple’s rules. On April 24, 2023, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that the App Store policies violated federal laws.

“App developers have tried, specifically Facebook. Facebook wants to have the level of integration that WeChat has in China, but Apple has consistently denied it,” Shoemaker said in an interview with Quartz.


Tencent, too, Shoemaker said, had its proposal rejected by Apple’s App Store several times. The eventual leniency was a business decision hinged on selling iPhones in the world’s most populous country at the time.

“Sometime in 2016 however, Tencent asked and Apple acquiesced,” he said. “Why? I can only guess, but my guess is the following: The majority of citizens in China used WeChat to pay for everything, from parking to groceries. And if that didn’t exist on the App Store, or available for Apple devices, who would buy an Apple device in China?”


Tencent was, and is, an exception to the rule. And there has been a lot of back and forth between the Chinese and American tech giants over the years. In 2017, WeChat disabled a popular tipping function that let readers reward content creators after Apple said it violated its rules for in-app purchases. But after backlash, Apple and Tencent restored the feature, changing the “tipping” button to “Like the author,” and sending money directly to an author’s personal WeChat Pay account without Apple taking a cut. In 2018 and 2020, WeChat told public account operators that it’s banning transactions for virtual goods and services in accordance with Apple’s App Store guidelines.

Why do companies—and Elon Musk—still want to try to build a superapp?

Superapps help businesses “build a moat,” the market research firm CB Insights wrote in its January tech trends report, in which it called such apps the “Swiss army knives of consumer tech platforms.” That’s why despite setbacks, Snap’s Spiegel is still committed to building a superapp. Spiegel, too, pointed to the merit of “diversified engagement across a wide variety of products in the same application” as a means to strengthen the business during a June 2022 interview with Axios at the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival in France.


But it won’t be easy for Snap or Twitter. Sure, users of these social apps may use new fintech features, but it’s unlikely that users ditch their Venmo or Paypal habitsto send money on social media platforms. While WeChat built its app on the back of social network QQ, it’s not obvious why Musk would have needed to pay a premium for Twitter if his only goal was to turn it into something altogether more expansive.

Moreover, Musk’s prospects aren’t all that promising by virtue of him being, well, Musk.


Apps like WeChat are anchored on business relations that let them host millions of mini-apps within their apps. Musk’s abrasive Twitter takeover led to an exodus of businesses from the platform, badly hurting ad revenue. If Musk wants to build a superapp, he’ll first need to get back in the good graces of the business community—and that, for him, seems like a herculean task.

Learn more about superapps

Ananya Bhattacharya talks to host Scott Nover about the West’s impossible superapp dream in episode 3 of the Quartz Obsession podcast, season 5.

🎧 Find it wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher | YouTube

👀 Or, read the transcript!

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