Elon Musk wants to offer Americans an “everything app” like China’s WeChat. A hurdle? Habits


Elon Musk has a fondness for the letter “X”. He names his son with singer Grimes, whose real name is a collection of letters and symbols, “X”. He dubbed the company he founded to buy Twitter “X Holdings.” His rocket company is, of course, SpaceX.

Now he apparently intends to do the same Turn Twitter into an “everything app”. He calls X.

For months, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has expressed interest in developing his own version of China’s WeChat — a “super app” that offers video chat, messaging, streaming and payments — for the rest of the world. At least after he bought Twitter after months of legal wrangling over the $44 billion sales deal he signed in April.

There are few obstacles. First, a Musk-owned Twitter would not be the only global company pursuing this goal, and would likely even catch up with its competitors. Next is the question of whether anyone really wants a Twitter-based everything app – or some other super app – at all.

Start with the competition and consumer demand. For years, Facebook parent Meta has tried to make its flagship platform a destination for everything online, adding payments, gaming, shopping and even dating features to its social network. So far it has had little success; Almost all revenue still comes from advertising.

Google, Snap, TikTok, Uber and others have also tried to jump on the super app bandwagon and expand their offerings to become essential to people’s everyday lives. None have set the world on fire, not least because people already have a range of apps at their disposal to shop, communicate and pay.

“Old habits are hard to break, and people in the US are used to using different apps for different activities,” said Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst at Insider Intelligence. Enberg also notes that super apps are likely to soak up more personal data at a time when trust in social platforms has declined significantly.

Musk launched the latest round of speculation on Oct. 4, the day he reversed his attempts to pull out of the deal and announced he still wanted to take over Twitter. “The purchase of Twitter accelerates the development of X, the everything app,” he tweeted without further explanation.

But he’s provided at least a little more detail in the past. During Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting in August, Musk told the crowd at a factory near Austin, Texas that he thinks he has “a good sense of where to steer the engineering team with Twitter to make it radically better.” “.

And he dropped some strong hints that processing payments for goods and services would be an important part of the app. Musk said he had a “bigger vision” for what X.com, an online bank he founded early in his career that eventually became part of PayPal, could have been.

“Of course you could start from scratch, but I think Twitter would help accelerate that by three to five years,” Musk said in August. “So it’s something I thought would be very useful for a long time to come. I know what to do.”

But it’s not clear that WeChat’s success in China means the same idea would apply to a US or global audience. WeChat usage is almost universal in China, where most people have never had a computer at home and go online directly with their cell phones.

Developed by tech giant Tencent Holding Ltd. powered platform has evolved into a one-stop shop for payments and other services and is starting to compete in the entertainment space. It is also a platform for health code apps that the public must use to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the government-approved China Internet Network Information Center, China has 1 billion internet users, and almost all of them go online via mobile phones. Only 33% use desktop computers at all – and mostly in addition to mobile phones. According to Tencent, WeChat had 1.3 billion users worldwide at the end of June.

Tencent and its main Chinese competitor, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, want to develop apps that offer so many services that users can’t easily switch to another app. You are not the only ones.

WeChat added video calling and other messaging features, as well as shopping, entertainment, and other features. Government agencies use it to send health, traffic, and other announcements. WeChat’s payment feature is now so widespread that cafes, museums, and a few other businesses will refuse cash and only accept payments through WeChat or the competing Ant app.

Despite the efforts of tech companies, there is no comparable app in the US.

It’s worth remembering that Musk’s grand visions don’t always work out the way he seems to expect. Humans are nowhere near colonizing Mars, and its promised robotaxis fleet remains about as far from reality as the metaverse.

Twitter’s user base is also tiny compared to those of its social platform competitors. While Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have long passed the 1 billion mark, Twitter has around 240 million users every day.

“Musk would have to overcome not only the hurdle of convincing consumers to change their behavior online, but also that Twitter is the place to do it,” Enberg said.

—Joe McDonald contributed to this story.

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