The metaverse is best described as a consensual hallucination between Mark Zuckerberg and the media — a fantasy that we’ll trade pleasurable activities in the physical world, like cooking and dating, for nausea-inducing hours in a virtual realm full of legless avatars. To most ordinary people, the Facebook CEO’s aspiration to be the god of a universe we can enter only by affixing a prophylactic to our heads seems megalomaniacal. They’re correct. However, every time you hear Zuckerberg say metaverse, swap in super-app and the plan sounds less stupid.
A super-app is a single mobile app that offers basic services including chat and payments, along with a suite of “mini-apps” from third parties, ranging from stores and restaurants to government agencies. Westerners aren’t familiar with them, but across much of Asia, super-apps are the internet. The largest is China’s WeChat, possibly the most heavily used piece of software on the planet. On WeChat, you can find a date, hail a cab, pay utilities, even get divorced. An app reaches super status when it knits together a critical mass of services and makes them addictively easy to toggle among, even if they aren’t as good as sole-purpose apps. The more services, the stickier and more lucrative.
A super-app can start small: WeChat began in chat; Indonesia’s Gojek started in ride hailing; and in India, Paytm was originally for buying prepaid mobile minutes. All of them eventually expanded from their niche and snowballed to dominance. The economics of super-apps are powerful — and possibly inexorable. I’m convinced that constructing a U.S. super-app is the strategic-imperative of the next decade and could result in the first $10 trillion company.
Already, there are a host of companies looking to replicate the Asian model — but to do so, they’ll have to get past Apple and Google, the nearly hegemonic mobile-OS providers, which are investing billions to prevent a super-app from inserting itself between them and their users. The radical transformation of Apple under Tim Cook has been a decade-long project to extend the company’s ecosystem to nullify the potential for a super-app to sit on top of iOS. It explains why Apple now offers both credit and debit payment systems, why you can use your Apple ID to sign in to a huge range of third-party services, and why Cook is giving Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston hundreds of millions of dollars to make a worse version of Murphy Brown.
It may be that Apple’s and Google’s defenses are insurmountable. But trillion-dollar enemies are coming, and it’s possible for any given market — especially one as wealthy as the U.S. — to sustain more than one super-app. (In China, Alipay is a strong competitor to WeChat.) Amazon is attempting an end run around screen-based tech with its voice-controlled devices, blanketing your home, office, and car with microphones so that you can just speak “Schedule a ride to the airport” or “E-file my 1040” and its unparalleled digital infrastructure will make it happen. It’s smart — the Alexa-enabled version of what’s already established in Asia, where super-apps link up with things in the real world primarily through scanning QR codes.
Facebook’s vision is weirder and bolder, similar to its founder. Facebook should already be the U.S. super-app, but Zuckerberg long ago proved to the public that he simply can’t be trusted. Thwarted in his attempt to conquer this world, he plans on building the next one, running on a new digital currency he controls. For Zuckerberg, it’s existential. Facebook could emerge as the biggest winner of the super-app future — or be sold to Google as an eyeball farm.
Every aspirant to super-app status in the U.S. will face one final adversary, the federal government. President Biden has stocked the executive branch with fiercely anti-tech legal scholars, and in Congress there is a bipartisan — if fragile — desire to rein in digital conglomeration. I’m on the side of the regulators here, but don’t bet against Silicon Valley and Wall Street’s considerable lobbying and PR investments. It’s a contest to become the most powerful entity on earth. And providing big tech with some competition might be, paradoxically, the best argument for letting the second-tier tech companies bulk up.
The newest and maybe the most exciting entrants in this contest are coming from the payments business, including PayPal, which owns Venmo, and Square. They already have the transaction network and financial relationships in place with businesses and consumers alike. People trust them. As far as we know, no fintech company has helped organize an insurrection or speedballed teen depression. Such companies print money, not conspiracy theories. They’re well financed and could pursue a titanic set of acquisitions that would change the tech landscape — while reaping trillions of dollars via the ultimate exercise in scale.
The core economic principle of the internet is the arbitrage of your attention. Some of the most valuable companies in the history of capitalism got that way by taking your online attention (the average American spends some 119 days a year consuming media from a screen, roughly the same amount of time spent sleeping) and monetizing it through subscriptions and advertising. Here is the really mind-bending potential of super-apps: Subscriptions and ads are only part of the full super-app monetization model and not even the most profitable. Taking a direct piece of transactions is staggeringly lucrative, and a company built around payments could make the Facebook and Google of today look small.
Payment processing is the nonnegotiable super-app service. It’s the glue that integrates core features with those provided by third parties on the platform, and it gives users the simple convenience of not having to enter credit-card information across dozens of apps and websites. A shift in the arbitrage of attention, from ads to the more potent payments business, promises to fuel a historic merger-and-acquisition binge that will reshape the array of industries that tech snobbishly calls “content.” And the biggest buyers will be in finance — not just start-ups but Wall Street’s Old Guard.
Financial-services firms are already expanding into new markets. Not long ago, American Express acquired the reservation service Resy. There was a brand logic to that deal, as AmEx has long offered concierge services. But JPMorgan recently purchased the Infatuation, the restaurant-review site and owner of Zagat, which is considerably more curious. In March, Square paid nearly $300 million for the music streamer Tidal, prompting a wave of WTF? coverage. You’ll know the super-app conquest has hit another level when Jack Dorsey combines Square with the other company he (half)runs, Twitter, and starts to offer all sorts of surprisingly useful services.
Not all of these tie-ups will work. A few weeks ago, rumors swirled that PayPal was considering buying Pinterest, but the stock fell and management soon denied any interest. But we’ll begin to see more deals that feel similar. PayPal’s Venmo is already a low-key social-media app and would be a natural to expand into restaurant reviews — and Yelp, for example, could be had for just over one percent of PayPal’s shares.
I’ve lived through half a dozen of these techno-social transitions, from the PC era to “dot-coms” (ask your parents), through mobile and social, and now this. Every shift has created more wealth than the one before — but also levied more harm. One thing they all had in common is that we never really saw them coming. In hindsight, these things look obvious, but none of these transitions have manifested as we expected. For the most part, they’re worse. The difference now is that we can see the super-apps coming. In Asia, they’re already here. As consumers, investors, and political leaders, we have a chance to do better. To set the stage for competition and empowerment, not co-option and enragement. Whether our future is mediated by Siri or by Meta’s metaverse, it doesn’t need to be a world of addictive and exploitative internet services, but the world we make of it.
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