It is with regret that I must confirm that 2009 already counts as the olden days. This was the year in which Apple started saying “there’s an app for that” in its advertisements. The phrase was much repeated, much parodied and super-effective. The following year the iPhone maker registered it as a trademark.
Looking back on those original ads, Apple’s need to explain concepts we now readily understand can’t help but bemuse.
“What’s great about the iPhone is that if you want to check snow conditions on the mountain, there’s an app for that,” begins one. “If you want to check how many calories are in your lunch, there’s an app for that. And if you want to check where exactly you parked the car, there’s even an app for that. Yep, there’s an app for just about anything, only on the iPhone.”
We were so innocent.
But the introduction of the App Store as a novel fount of information – notice the absence of payment utility in the examples given – is not the only reason why these ads have dated.
A full decade plus the whole amorphous pandemic period later, the desirability of “an app for anything” has become passé in certain elite circles, replaced by the alarm-raising idea of “an app for everything”.
The problem with “an app for anything” is that any random developer with capital to burn can release one and call themselves a unicorn by Christmas. For more seasoned mega-billionaires, this is cottage industry stuff.
The kind of walking banks who bother the upper echelons of the Bloomberg Billionaires Index don’t want their apps to merely be one of the 3.5 million on Google Play or 1.6 million on Apple’s App Store. They want them to be fintech-enabled super-apps – single portals to a wide range of services, including digital payments, with a dominant position in each. After all, if China’s Tencent can do it, why can’t they?
Chinese super-app WeChat, owned by Tencent, is the dubious model-of-choice for Elon Musk, who announced in October that buying Twitter would be “an accelerant to creating X, the everything app”.
Let’s gloss over Musk’s doubtful ability right now to accelerate anything except the departure of advertisers from Twitter and consider the inspiration he is reported to have latched upon.
In China, WeChat has garnered an indispensable role in daily life. It has evolved from a messaging app with a range of video call and conferencing functions into a walled garden through which people can hail taxis, order food, play games, book medical appointments, transfer money and, most significantly, make payments through a digital wallet called WeChat Pay. It is omnipresent.
Other super-apps in Asia include Singapore’s “everyday everything app” Grab, Indonesia’s GoTo and India’s PayTM.
It is in India where we find the latest tycoon to declare his super-app ambitions. In an interview in the Financial Times, Gautam Adani last week revealed plans to build an ethane cracker (for turning natural gas into plastics), bid on an Israeli power plant, possibly invest in African mining, develop a global media brand and – within three to six months – launch a super-app.
Adani, who started off as an importer of PVC to India, heads a conglomerate called Adani Enterprises that owns interests in cement, coal and solar power and runs six airports, passengers through which he would like to connect to other services offered by his group. Naturally, he is eyeing a super-app as the means to do it.
If this seems a lot for one man, then it might be pertinent to note that Adani is no longer just any old billionaire. This year has seen him vault up the ranks to become the third wealthiest person in the world, ahead of former list-toppers Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and behind only French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault in second and his fellow super-app craver Musk in first.
Musk, meanwhile, is no stranger to Tencent. It has a 5 per cent stake in electric vehicle maker Tesla, the source of most of his paper wealth. So it is perhaps no surprise that he might muse on the lack of a WeChat equivalent outside China, then publicly hail the opportunity to create one.
“You basically live on WeChat in China because it’s so useful and 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,” he said in a virtual “town hall” meeting with Twitter employees in June.
Musk likes a good “X”. His satellite and rockets company is called SpaceX, he once co-founded an online bank called X.com and his young son’s name is often shortened to X. He owns three companies named with a variation of X Holdings, with one of them – X Holdings II – becoming the vehicle through which he acquired Twitter.
But his vague vision of X as a US-centric WeChat is a wildly flawed one. This is not least because WeChat and other super-apps were able to become the all-encompassing umbrella businesses they are today unfettered by competition regulations or data privacy protections. The more recent Chinese government crackdown on tech companies’ power hasn’t erased the impact of these early advantages.
Indeed, WeChat’s ubiquity makes censorship all too easy for the authorities. With social unrest now spreading across Chinese cities in response to President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policies, WeChat is a convenient surveillance tool for smothering political dissent and suppressing the distribution of unapproved news.
Elon “free speech” Musk will presumably regard this feature of the super-app model as unfortunate rather than part of the appeal. Either way, his megalomaniacal utterings are likely to come up against a vast army of hostile parties residing not only in Washington and Brussels, but in Silicon Valley.
Outside countries such as China, app store proprietors and mobile payments providers Google and Apple retain huge gatekeeping control. Big Tech companies such as Meta and Amazon, who have expressed super-app intentions without using that specific term, will also want their say.
Thirteen years on from “there’s an app for that”, I haven’t got around to checking mountainous snow conditions, how many calories were in my lunch or where exactly I parked my non-existent car. But it remains cool that separate apps exist for such things. Nobody actually needs to place their trust in a single super-app to manage their digital lives. More to the point, nobody should.