Elon Musk may want a WeChat for the world, but it won't be easy to build
Elon Musk is taking inspiration from China's top social media platform, WeChat, while planning a future for Twitter. And while he has shared very few details of his ambition for an app for everything, experts say it won't be easy to achieve.
The Tesla CEO said late Tuesday that he wanted to create a new app called "X" after buying Twitter.
"Buying Twitter is an accelerant to creating X, the everything app," he tweeted.
Musk's comment came on the heels of news that he had once again reversed course and decided to follow through with his bid to buy Twitter for $44 billion, a price originally agreed back in April.
Now, Musk's intention to build out what's assumed to be a multipurpose platform has drawn comparisons to "super-apps" in Asia, essentially one-stop shops that do it all for users.
Several tech companies in the region have already succeeded with their own versions of such applications. Chief among them is WeChat, the platform that is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent and sometimes described as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and PayPal all rolled into one.
More than a billion users, primarily in mainland China, rely on the social network to do virtually everything — from ordering groceries to booking a yoga class to paying bills — without leaving the app.
Elsewhere in Asia, people have also flocked to apps such as Grab (GRAB) in Singapore and Malaysia, or Line in Japan. Grab was initially best known as a ride-hailing service provider, while Line gained popularity as a messaging app, and both have since branched out significantly to offer other features.
Musk has not been shy about his desire to emulate the success of WeChat. In June, at a town hall with Twitter employees, he compared the American company's potential to that of Tencent's ubiquitous service in China.
"I think an important goal for Twitter would be to try to include as much of the country, as much of the world, as possible," said the billionaire businessman. "You basically live on WeChat in China because it's so usable and helpful to daily life, and I think if we can achieve that, or even get close to that at Twitter, it would be an immense success."
Musk isn't the only prominent US tech leader taking cues from China: Previously, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also suggested that WeChat should be a case study for his company.
For now, Musk has yet to outline his plans for X. But analysts say he would face numerous challenges.
First: the fiercely competitive landscape. To some extent, WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and practically "everything" are trying "to become super-apps as well," said Ivan Lam, a senior research analyst at Counterpoint Research based in Hong Kong.
"To try to become a super-app, it's actually very hard," he said in an interview.
Xiaofeng Wang, a principal analyst at Forrester who focuses on digital marketing and engagement strategies in Asia Pacific, echoed that view, noting that the industry had only become more saturated in recent years.
"When WeChat first launched extended services beyond social, there weren't that many established competitors in related businesses yet," she told CNN Business.
"For example, when WeChat Pay was first launched, there [weren't] any well-established mobile payment services in China yet ... While in the US, there are already PayWave, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, Venmo."
Companies trying to branch out in the sector could also face considerable pushback from policymakers, according to Wang.
"The more flexible regulatory environment in China at the time gave internet companies like Tencent and Alibaba more room to extend to a wide range of businesses. WeChat benefited from that and grew into a super-app," she said.
"It would be a lot harder now, given the stricter anti-monopoly regulations in China and it would be certainly harder for Twitter or the future X to do that in the US," she added.
Perhaps the core challenge, however, is simply trying to be everything for everyone.
Lam noted that many successful "super-apps" have typically targeted specific audiences, making it easier to tailor a suite of services to their needs. That would be tough to replicate globally — and could mean that Twitter or X would need to also focus on certain regions to get off the ground, he said.
Musk has acknowledged the uphill battle. On Tuesday, a Twitter user posited that "it would have been easier to just start X from scratch," prompting the billionaire to respond that Twitter was an important part of the plan.
"Twitter probably accelerates X by 3 to 5 years, but I could be wrong," Musk wrote.
Wang said that Forrester's research had shown there were fundamental differences in how Western and Chinese users viewed social media, making it harder for Western companies "to build the same level of trust."
"Putting the ambitions aside, it may be a lot more difficult to create a super-app like WeChat in the West," she concluded.
Clare Duffy contributed to this report
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