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TO CLUB OR NOT TO CLUB

Investors in wannabe super apps must remember that India is not China

A man watches a video on his mobile phone as he commutes by a suburban train in Mumbai
Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
All-in-one fix.
Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

A single app that clubs a bunch of services, or super app, was the buzz word in the Indian internet ecosystem in 2019.

From digital payments giant Paytm to ride-hailing major Ola, and telecom service provider Reliance Jio, several prominent companies are seen to be in the fray to create India’s WeChat, a Chinese app that offers a mash-up of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, Paypal, Twitter, Uber, Kindle, and more.

“It’s a great way to keep customers hooked to the platform,” said Arnav Gupta, an analyst at Forrester Research. “And being a super app makes it easier to acquire customers, too, as the breadth of services available makes it easier to attract customers to the platform.”

However, even as the idea sounds exciting and has worked well in China, there are concerns if it is a sound strategy to win in India’s diverse and complex market.

The WeChat hangover

For many Chinese people, WeChat is the internet.

In 2012, a little over a year after it launched, Tencent-owned WeChat had attracted 100 million users—a milestone that Facebook took four years to reach, and Twitter five. Now, WeChat has over a billion monthly active users.

Launched as a messaging service, by 2013, WeChat had added a “digital wallet” (link in Chinese) to the app. Now, it also allows access to third-party services like ride-hailing, online shopping, and food delivery. In addition, the app gives users access to public services such as booking doctor appointments, applying for visas, and checking driving records.

Its Mini Program, introduced in late 2017, is changing the game as it allows users to access lighter versions of third-party apps, such as online dictionary called Youdao and Didi Chuxing’s peer-to-peer ride-sharing service, which means they don’t have to download those apps separately.

In addition to WeChat, China’s fintech giant Ant Financial’s mobile payments app Alipay is so considered a super app in the country. Although Alipay is not as ubiquitous as WeChat, the app’s over 900 million users in China rely on it to do things from investing in funds to ordering food and booking rides, in addition to making mobile payments with it.

China’s Meituan Dianping, an on-demand service app, is another example of a super app. The Tencent-backed app allows one to order not only food but also buy a movie ticket and rate restaurants, among other services.

Outside China, Indonesia’s Go-jek, primarily a ride-hailing firm, also runs a delivery service and has a payment service called Go-Pay. It’s big southeast Asian rival Grab, meanwhile, is trying to branch out from ride-hailing into banking.

Get in line India

Their influence on the Indian ecosystem is but natural. After all, a bunch of large internet businesses in India are backed by Chinese investors. For instance, Ant Financial is an investor in Zomato and Paytm, and Meituan Dianping has pumped money into Swiggy. Tencent has the most prolific India portfolio including Ola, Flipkart, Swiggy, Gaana, and Dream11, among others. Softbank, which backs Paytm and Ola in India, has invested in Grab.

Indian firms are clearly stepping up.

Take Paytm, for instance. India’s biggest digital payments company, which allows peer-to-peer transfers, merchant payments, and ticket booking for flights, movies, and more, brought messaging to its wallet app two years ago. It has since invested in a payments bank, wealth management services, food-delivery as well as the education sector. Multiple experts Quartz spoke to believe that Vijay Shekhar Sharma’s company is perhaps the best poised to create a super app.

Separately, ride-hailing giant Ola has forayed into food-tech, payments, electric vehicles, and more.

Two of the country’s e-tailing behemoths, Flipkart and Amazon India, got embroiled in a video-streaming war since Flipkart Videos started competing with Amazon’s Prime Video in August this year. Both players have also been looking at fintech seriously. Amazon India has been funneling millions of dollars into its payments arm and Flipkart’s wallet, PhonePe, is giving Paytm a run for its money.

And that’s not all. Few of the larger legacy companies, especially telcos, are trying to establish their strongholds in the super app race, too.

Airtel, for instance, has integrated cab booking services through Ola, payment via BHIM Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and train booking from Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). It also offers hotel bookings via OYO.

“Reliance has the potential to imitate WeChat’s model in India.”

Reliance Jio, India’s biggest telecom player, is also building a robust ecosystem. In 2018, it bought music-streaming app Saavn and integrated it with its own app JioMusic. Additionally, it has Jio TV and Jio News. Recently, Reliance acquired fashion e-commerce app Fynd, to strengthen its position in the online retail segment. “Reliance has the potential to imitate WeChat’s model in India on account of its product offerings, supply chain, tech team, internet users base, logistics and capabilities and, strong investor portfolio,” Sukriti Seth, a consultant at the Noida-based TechSci Research, told Quartz.

But the key question here is whether this is a sound strategy to win the Indian market or a total hodgepodge?

Super idea, but execution?

In China, WeChat made an entry at the right time—just after the exit of Google over a protectionist environment in 2010.

The app has evolved to cater to the Chinese audience, which largely has the same taste throughout the nation. For instance, right after its debut, WeChat realised a pure messaging app wouldn’t garner much attention, so it introduced the “shake” feature which lets users connect with strangers who shake their phones at the same time. While it was a novel concept in a country full of early adapters, Indians aren’t as tech-savvy. And given the country’s dismal safety standards, interacting with strangers isn’t exactly a draw either.

In fact, WeChat itself tanked in India.

Besides WeChat’s poor show, India has another example of an early adopter failing to succeed at being a super app. In 2018, Hike messenger, founded by Kavin Bharti Mittal—son of Airtel founder Sunil Bharti Mittal—tried to bundle services but soon unbundled them, deeming the super app experiment unsuccessful.

“Indian consumers like choice in their options.”

“Hike’s bundling of services was not successful as Indian consumers like choice in their options,” says Seth of TechSci. “Consumers want to check different options before making any purchase decision. For example, a consumer wants to check Grofers and BigBasket to opt for best offers before making any purchases.”

Unlike China, India is divided along many geographical and cultural lines. In fact, experts say, the Xi Jinping-led nation is unique.

“Other countries in the world have contemplated one-stop shops like WeChat but they have realised that consumers (there) do not have (the) same incentives to break old habits and adopt new ones as we saw in China. The digital (and) social experience in the West is much more fragmented,” said Anindya Ghose, a professor of technology, operations, statistics and marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “The Indian ecosystem has to figure out what Indian consumers would prefer.”

In India, the number of internet users rose from 500 million in 2017 to 650 million in 2018 thanks to the proliferation of smartphones. However, the diverse population coming online also presents a series of challenges. “The vernacular differences in languages make it harder to have a one-stop-shop in India rather than Mandarin which is universal in China,” Ghose said.

In addition, there are technical barriers to super apps in India. An all-in-one app is typically larger in size, and Indian phones aren’t equipped to handle that. “One of the biggest issues with the app ecosystem in India—the limited storage capacity on most phones,” Rahul Chowdhri of Stellaris Venture Partners noted back in 2017. “The average smartphone in India costs Rs7,000 ($98) and comes with 8-16 GB of storage and 2 GB RAM.”

Also, for all the companies vying for the super app tag, getting the right services on board remains crucial, too.

“I think for an ecosystem to be meaningful to the customers, the onus is on the partner businesses with which super apps collaborate,” said Forrester’s Gupta. “These partner businesses (sometimes government agencies and departments) need to up their game to support the scale at which super apps want to operate. This is potentially a major constraint.”

Experts even feel that right now, a super app may not be the best thing for India, which is a fairly less evolved tech market with more copycat businesses than innovative ones. “Bundling of services under one umbrella might not turn out to be the best idea for the digital ecosystem. It will hamper the innovation in this ecosystem and create a monopoly,” TechSci’s Seth warns.

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