Understanding the “Super App” in Indonesia

Making sense of the past, the present, and the future.

Ever since news broke of the merger of Indonesia’s two fastest growing unicorns, Gojek and Tokopedia into the tech giant Goto (as opposed to my preferred name of ToKek), I believe what’s happening is not just a merger, but the emergence of Indonesia’s first true super app.

What’s so super about super apps?

Blackberry pioneered the Superapp concept in 2010 but didn’t live to see the day. Blackberry / Gary Goods

While the term “super app” entered the mainstream spotlight recently, the origin of the term dates from the distant past of 2010, coined by then-Blackberry CEO, Mike Lazaridis, defining it as :

a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.

Go-jek elaborates on Lazaridis’ definition by stating “A Super App is many apps within an umbrella app. It’s an OS that unbundles the tyranny of apps…

In layman’s terms, I would describe what super apps are trying to do with “regular” applications, is what the Smartphone (more specifically, the iPhone) did to computers, mp3 players, PDAs, calculators, and mobile phones: a one-stop solution to access the plethora of features previously scattered across many platforms.

Facebook’s platform concept dating back to 2015. Hernaes

The precursor to the super app idea can be, thought not directly related, to the platform concept, as Tarleton Gillespie (2010) describes it as “a space for users to not just interact within the services provided, but also give opportunity for others such as advertisers and third-parties to capitalize on the existing marketplace”. The platform concept and subsequent “platformization” of Facebook is the reason behind Facebook’s diversification on features, starting with acquisitions like Whatsapp, Instagram and Oculus, and other baked into the Facebook app itself such as Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Gaming.

Wechat’s massive “mini-app” ecosystem, all in one neat package. Matthew Brennan

The stark difference of the “platform-concept” that Facebook touted compared to the super apps are the directions of the services incorporated — while Facebook links services, websites and products externally to other sites or apps (such as games, shopping and instant messaging), super apps like Wechat incorporates and internalizes such services as an in-house feature of the app. The endgame of super apps are to become the hub of all mobile activity, becoming a proto-operating system of user activities only limited by the operating system itself (such as iOS and android)

But what exactly gives the superapp it’s superpowers? Apart from the perfect storm of opportunities and paradigm shifts, a key player into the superapps are the super designers.

Super Design for a Super App

As a designer, I was taught that great products result from a great design process. In the tech industry, User-Experience (UX) becomes a determining factor in the success of the super app, as understanding the complex needs of a user and delivering a product that fulfills said needs is already a gargantuan feat of any designer, especially a product with an emphasis on intangible activities.

In this era of digitization, your mobile app has to experience strong competition in order to survive in the digital market. So, it’s significant for your mobile app to have an appealing and mind catching design that could have an influence on the mind of the customers — Shanuj Mishra, 2019

The extent that design is utilized is not just limited to looks, but rather a deep understanding of users within the context of the world they live in. Take a look at what GoTo came up with:

Two apps to rule them all your transport and commerce needs. Adithya Venkatsen / Gojek Tech

The abundance of data (explained more in-depth later) becomes a vital role in the design decisions of super apps, as market-research on behavior, new products, habits are all neatly collected in the forms of analytics for designers and marketing to devour, savoring every last detail to create the penultimate product to suit the user. It has never been easier to gather data required for the design process, and new digital-centered companies know this. The super app is not just a one-way product, but becomes a feedback loop between users and a service provider.

Systems thinking is becoming a staple of the new generation of designers, as companies are starting to see the importance of a more holistic approach in the design process, as they provide much a more realistic and meaningful view of problems. It’s no longer possible to make an app and rely on just a pretty interface to succeed.

Gojek owes it’s success to a holistic approach towards a new market .Dadbod1234 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Uber’s unsuccessful expansion in Southeast Asia comes to mind of how the holistic approach makes or breaks an applications’ success. On retrospectives why Uber failed, it’s never about Uber’s logo, interface, colors, driver jackets, but how the brand felt more like a raw import; it didn’t offer a product fits with the market it was trying to capture.

Unlike Grab and Gojek, Uber stuck with car taxis instead of motorcycle rides and was faced with Southeast Asia’s notorious traffic jam, giving into the idea 17 months after their entry; Gojek understood the limited hardware of phones that Indonesians used and chose to utilize built-in cameras to scan easily printed QR codes instead of extra devices like NFC or RFID, and convinced businesses that it was the way to go, transforming the country’s payment system overnight. In the super app game, design becomes critical.

Yes, there are other factors to the success of super-apps in Asia, such as an emerging mobile-first userbase, business strategies such as hyperlocalization, but it’s the work of designers that not only identify the potential of theses scenarios, and tailor the suitable product that best fits the current and upcoming direction of the world.

The steel cage fight of the super apps

A Delivery service…. In an instant messaging app? Techcrunch/ LINE

While Gojek was not the first super app to step foot on Indonesia, it seems to be the first to leave a mark and utilized design far more effectively compared to other super apps that tried to claim the throne, notably in my own experience, Naver’s instant-messaging app: LINE.

Personally, LINE was the first application I experienced that tried to be the premier super app. the instant messaging app had been growing rapidly in Indonesia, and LINE was enjoying success in Japan as a super app. It was a predictable move that LINE would move in that direction, introducing features like LINE Pay, Line MAN, Webtoons, LINE Games, LINE Keep. While LINE’s failure to expand are mostly attributed to mistakes in business decisions, from a user’s perspective all these features came at a cost that LINE probably didn’t realize at the time: Feature Bloat.

Remember India’s ‘Good Morning’ message phenomenon? Every day, India’s mobile users send a ‘good morning’ image to their friends and family. According to a WSJ report, “These images have an overabundance of sun-dappled flowers, adorable toddlers, birds and sunsets sent along with a cheery message.” As a result, one in three smartphone users ran out of space daily, according to a Western Digital report.

And the first thing they do to free up space is… delete apps. — Gojek Tech, 2019

Perhaps LINE’s biggest mistake was the sheer size of the application itself, taking up more and more storage while consumers flocked to leaner applications like Whatsapp, Telegram and Discord. Even Gojek addresses this phenomenon of deleting apps as the main driver of its superapp philosophy. In the end, LINE chose to focus on media, focusing on news services like LINE Today, Webtoons and Games, though in 2021 , LINE has introduced their own banking service.

While the same can be said about Gojek, it never truly hindered the core experience of the app, namely the ride-hailing and payment. By 2016 Go-jek had captured around 80% of the market, and the rest is history. Gojek has evolved from being a ride-hailing app into a force inseparable from modern Indonesian society, transforming their product nameplate into a part of the Indonesian language itself.

Meanwhile in the opposite side of the world , Amazon, Google and Facebook have all tried to become the first superapp of the west, but apart from getting caught in a slew of anti-trust and government meddling, the general consumer doesn’t seem too eager to want a superapp, not to mention how the public has grown a deep mistrust of “Big Tech”, it seems unlikely to see any superapp emerging. Speaking of trust…

Super Data, Super Problems?

A visualization of Facebook’s data collection. Facebook Algorithmic Lab/ Sharelab

An often overlooked aspect of Superapps are their size, requiring large amounts of fuel to efficiently operate — data to be exact. Part of the reason these superapps can provide such breakthrough services is due to the large amounts of data that are available for companies. On the other side, privacy concern in our digital age has no longer become a negligible issue, as not only companies but even governments have time and time again had incidents of data leaks and lackluster cybersecurity. While Gojek has had a clean track record, Tokopedia’s report card is tainted in numerous data leaks.

Data is the commodity of the future, but very few of the population understand the volatility and importance of privacy. Anonymity is becoming something we took for granted, as numerous companies (government bodies too, in some cases) are profiling our digital footprint. While the transaction of data for services is becoming more and more tolerated, the concern of the safety of our data, how the data is being used and the control of our own data, are also rising. We’ve seen how data can be used against us — all the way from targeted advertisement all the way to the dystopian reality of citizens in China, where the social credit system is linked with their super app accounts, resulting in the government constantly imposing a presence within the daily lives of users. In the future, apps must not strictly protect the data of users, but create a sense of trust as well.

Indonesia’s digital divide between urban and rural zones is still becoming a challenge. Opensignal

In Indonesia and many developing countries, not everyone ready for the imminent super app takeover. As the industry grows, the digital divide widens. Of what use are super apps to a farmer who does not even have a smartphone, nor a sailor who does not use such technologies at all? Ethical issues arise as the more technology-driven cities seep into the traditional village, as not everyone can nor wants to be on board. Responsibility and justice within the digital transformation are becoming a growing discussion with academia as well as companies seeking to discover solutions that cater to both.

While newlyweds GoTo appear to be on an unstoppable path, many are skeptical of the future, as neither company has a significant presence outside of Indonesia and some also question the profitability of the company and the emergence of Sea Group’s Shopee have been playing catch-up with both Gojek and Tokopedia, as well as long time rivals Grab and Lazada, seeing tremendous growth akin to the ones Gojek had during its early years. While the great super app war will wage on, in my eyes Gojek has cemented itself to be Indonesia’s first own superapp.

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Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more

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Rayhan Finn

Rayhan Finn

Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more

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