Rise of the Super App: Mobile-First Product Ideas from China

Kenta Nagamine
7 min readJan 16, 2018

I watched a talk about Chinese app trends recently which gave me some interesting insights about Chinese companies’ perspectives on product development. So I took notes about the presentation and put some thoughts here. (I have a newsletter as well)

Rise of the Super App: Mobile-First Product Ideas from China

This talk was given by Connie Chan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, at the Women in Product Conference 2017. She talks mainly about two themes that are eating China and Asia, which are “Super App” and “Mobile First.”

Super App

From a slide of “Rise of the Super App: Mobile-First Product Ideas from China”

I have heard the rumor about WeChat that Chinese people do daily tasks using only one app. But, it seems like the trend is not only WeChat’s.

Super App is an app that puts a bunch of services together into it.

One of the examples is Alipay — a third-party mobile and online payment platform, established in Hangzhou, China in 2004.

Screenshot of Alipay iOS app

You can see many different services that can look irrelevant to each other. With many sections such as Fund Transfer and Third-party Services, the app allows users to use city service, pay utilities, buy movie tickets, book a room via Airbnb and do a lot more stuff. These are all in ONE APP!

Go-Jek, a transportation app from Indonesia, is another example of Super App introduced in the talk.

App icon and screenshot of GO-JEK app

Again, you can see a lot of different icons with different colors. There is no sense of unity. But users can accomplish many tasks within the app without even leaving the app.

It, of course, covers transportation while letting users use food delivery, grocery delivery, shipping service, and the list goes on.

And, it is kind of a trick that black icon with a green person riding a motorbike actually contains this diversity of apps inside.

The representative example of Super App is WeChat. The instant messaging app (initially), which was launched by a Chinese tech giant Tencent (btw Tencent is the same age as me, it’s my peer) in 2011 and now has more 950 million monthly active users for Q2 2017, has become the app for everything in life.

Image from When One App Rules Them All: The Case of WeChat and Mobile in China

Having all these options, the app also lets you do the same things like the apps mentioned above do. Booking a doctor appointment, hailing a taxi, playing games all within the single app. And eventually, the app is becoming the official electronic ID for Chinese people.

In the United States, for example, you would use many apps depending on what you want to achieve. iMessage for communication, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat for social, Venmo for money transfer and so on Uber or Lyft for car sharing Airbnb for trip booking.

Image from An Introduction to WeChat

But WeChat users use only the app to accomplish all their daily jobs.

“One Day of WeChat” published by WeChat official account

In the talk, she describes the screen that encompasses many services as the home screen of an iPhone.

My iPhone home screen

Looks kind of similar?

But on WeChat, you do not have to press the home button (which is already gone on iPhone X by the way) and are one-click away from everything, she says.

Also, you are already signed into everything and payments information is stored.

This many services within one app× no need to re-input is so robust!

Facebook — another company that owns some of the largest messaging apps, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp — actually let similar services live within the Facebook app (over 2 billion monthly active users).

Screenshot of Facebook’s Explore section

Apparently, Facebook is not pushing these features as their main services since they are listed quietly in the tab on the right and you can see them living when you click the hamburger (three horizontal lines) menu and scroll down a little bit.

It required me sign-up and payment information when I actually tried to buy movie tickets or order food delivery.

The Tencent’s initially simple instant messaging app evolved into a multi-purpose platform for all business in China in just seven years from its initial launch. And currently, all the lightweight apps within WeChat share the same, almost one billion user traffic with all required information ready to be used anytime.

The WeChat’s use-the-existing-audience strategy reminds me of other services in the United States.


Amazon was selling only one product (books) when it launched in 1994. (I can’t imagine)

Since then, the company has started selling everything from clothes to electronics and people access to Amazon.com first to search for anything they need. In fact, 44% of e-commerce sales in the United States is produced by Amazon in 2017. This is seriously unbelievable! but makes sense.

Moreover, it provides cloud computing (AWS), Prime Video, and its own hardwares like Kindle devices and intelligent personal assistant (Amazon Alexa). Last summer, (2017) it has finally started taking on grocery industry by acquiring high-end grocery chain Whole Foods.

Although it’s not that Amazon owns one app that does everything, the way the single company uses the large user base and taps into every single aspect of our lives is similar to the success of WeChat in China.


Airbnb was released as “home sharing platform” in 2008. However, the company is currently in transition from the single purpose company to a travel company like WeChat transformed to the multi-purpose platform.

Since the initial service release, it has been the place for people to rent out their unused places and book the places for travel. But, the San Francisco-based company expanded the travel experience they had been providing with the launch of Trips in 2016 and the recent release of restaurant booking feature (currently limited only in the United States) with the partnership of Resy. The third party strategy is exactly what WeChat and other Chinese companies do very often.

Gif from Airbnb Newsroom

In the future, Airbnb might encompass everything related to “travel” within one app, retaining the quality local experiences while becoming the go-to app for travel for everyone on the planet.

“Let’s go on a trip” will be “Let’s open Airbnb app”

Though it’s a similar approach to Chinese companies as Airbnb thinks how can they use their existing audience? and what other features their users want when they use their app? they would go beyond that. What they are doing with their platform is something like adding “Play Game” tab in the Airbnb app.

Mobile First

The second theme introduced in the talk is “Mobile First.”

When I hear the word “Mobile First,” I used to translate it to just “Designing a content for mobile first before any other devices.”

But for Chinese companies, “Mobile First” really means utilizing “features that are mobile specific, that are specific to mobile hardware.” In other words, it is about “designing for mobile first, knowing all the different sensors and all the different abilities that smartphones allow you to have she says.

They utilize literally every single part of a smartphone.

Image from iPhone X vs. Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+

The two features, Shake Shake and voice messaging that WeChat has had from their very early days, are the examples of the concept. They used the accelerometer and microphone built into smartphones to provide these features.

They use the Global Positioning System (GPS), the Near-field communication (NFC), the compass, and the camera — literally every part of a smartphone. The camera — for Chinese companies with the “Mobile First” theme — is not only for taking pictures but also for data input. (You can see a lot of different useful ways that QR codes are used from here.)

Chinese people use their camera to scan QR codes to complete payments. The cashless life in China is supported by the data input of the camera, that is specific to smartphone hardware. (Who wants to bring their laptops to just scan QR codes with their built-in cameras?)

China had low PC, email and credit card penetration. And there came the mobile first apps that have many apps together that enable users to do everything. The social situation was definitely a big contributor to China’s mobile-first app success. They leapfrogged over PCs to smartphones, over credit cards to mobile payments.

That means, when WeChat wants to expand their hands to the United States, credit cards can be one of the big obstacles for them. In fact, they seem to be failing to prosper in the United States.

But, the way of thinking other countries can learn from Chinese companies is to “Think: how can we use our existing audience?” and “what can your app do that wouldn’t be possible on a PC?