Why China’s favorite news app lets users order food
ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao is becoming one of China’s many super apps, which include WeChat and Meituan
If you’re a typical smartphone user in a Western country, you probably have a different app for everything. A couple of reading apps for news and ebooks, a few social apps, one app to book tickets for trains and planes, a ride-hailing app, maybe a food delivery app and perhaps a handful of other apps for fun and recreation.
But in China, many smartphone users prefer to turn to a single super app that fuses together entirely separate functions. So it’s not completely surprising that China’s favorite news app is now adding features that have nothing to do with news, like food delivery.
Jinri Toutiao (Daily Headlines), created by TikTok owner ByteDance, used to be a platform that only offered precisely what its name suggests: A curated news feed, churned out by algorithms that know what you like. An update this week, however, added many more functions to its already crowded content channels.
Users can now use third-party services to order deliveries from restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies or browse the latest job listings from within the app ostensibly meant for news consumption.
Also added are buttons for the Keen fitness app and Himalaya, the country's popular music and podcast platform. There’s even a platform that lets you rent consumer electronics like VR glasses or printers.
Toutiao has effectively reinvented itself, transforming into an app that users never need to leave. It’s joining a slew of competing apps that have all taken the same approach.
The best known example of a super app is probably Tencent’s WeChat. While it was born as a mobile messaging app, it’s now one of China’s top two dominant mobile payment apps and has millions of mini programs that enable seemingly everything. Gaming, restaurant bookings, shopping and local government services like notarization can all be done from within WeChat.
“The main selling point of super apps to consumers is simplicity and convenience,” said Julber Osio, a senior specialist at S&P Global Market Intelligence.
But to create a super app, developers have to offer a wide range of services so users have no reason leave the app, he added.
The idea isn’t completely foreign in the West. Google launched Android Instant Apps in 2016, allowing people to preview an Android app from within Google’s search results. And Facebook launched instant games the same year. But these efforts didn’t become popular. The reasons for this include different antitrust regulations, privacy expectations and cultural differences, Osio said.
In North America and Europe, antitrust policies would likely prevent large companies from swallowing smaller ones to expand their market dominance the way they did in China, according to Osio. Putting multiple services into one app also raises concerns about consumer privacy and handling of personal information -- but these concerns may be less pronounced in China, he said.
China also seems to be more accustomed to getting things done on their phones. This is because many people in China -- as in many other emerging markets in Asia -- used the internet for the first time on a smartphone, Osio said. This is in contrast to more developed markets in the West, where the use of desktop computers remains much more common.
But when smartphones first took off in China, people weren’t getting the best phones money could buy with ample memory. So instead of cluttering them with different apps, developers created super apps that could do everything.
It’s not a bad deal for tech companies. Keeping users in one app for more activities means those people spend more time and money on one platform and its partnered services. This is why the number of super apps is rising while they continue to swallow up even more functions.
Another super app is Meituan Dianping, which started off as a combination of group buying and Yelp-like restaurant ratings. It’s now a popular platform for food delivery and lets users find a slew of other services, like ordering pedicures, finding a VR playroom or booking a wedding banquet. Its latest offering is ordering books from bookstores.
Alipay is another app that’s expanded far beyond its original function as a payment app to offer dozens of third-party services.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, an affiliate of Alipay owner Ant Financial.)
For Toutiao, though, a deciding factor to supersize itself was a much more recent event: The new coronavirus outbreak. In China, the deadly virus has resulted in millions of people quarantining themselves at home. Schools have resorted to live-streaming classes and office workers have been told to work from home.
Toutiao is taking advantage of the new trends. It first rolled out video classes in February under a function called Study at Home. Then it added new features providing life services under the name Have Fun at Home.
Toutiao’s super app transformation actually started earlier, though. It started by adding ByteDance’s video platform Xigua before expanding to offer books and mini games. And now Toutiao is even doing movie premieres.
If you love the super app concept and you’re waiting for the trend to catch on where you live, is there any hope? Signs are dim. When it was revealed last year that Facebook planned to integrate messaging for Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, it was met with opposition. And that wasn’t even about combining apps.
“Super apps survived in China due to reasons specific to China,” Osio said. “Until conditions in other markets become somewhat similar to China's, super apps will have a hard time gaining significant traction.”