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 named the company he created to buy Twitter “X Holdings”. His rocket company is, naturally, SpaceX.
Now he also apparently intends to turn Twitter into an “everything app” which he calls X.
For months, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has expressed interest in creating his own version of WeChat in China – a “super app” that does video chats, messaging, streaming and payments – for the rest of the world . At least, that is once he finishes buying Twitter after months of legal wrangling over the $44 billion purchase deal he signed in April.
There are only a few obstacles. First, a Musk-owned Twitter would not be the only global company pursuing this goal and, in fact, would likely catch up with its rivals. Then comes the question of whether anyone really wants an all-Twitter-based app — or any other great app — to begin with.
Start with competition and consumer demand. Facebook parent Meta has spent years trying to make its flagship platform a destination for everything online, adding payments, games, shopping and even dating features to its social network. So far he has had little success; almost all of its revenue still comes from advertising.
Google, Snap, TikTok, Uber and others have also attempted to jump on the super app bandwagon, expanding their offerings with the aim of becoming indispensable to people throughout their day. None have set the world on fire so far, not least because people already have a number of apps at their disposal to manage purchases, communication and payments.
“Old habits are hard to break, and people in the United States are used to using different apps for different activities,” said Jasmine Enberg, senior analyst at Insider Intelligence. Enberg also notes that super apps would likely suck up more personal data at a time when trust in social platforms has deteriorated significantly.
Musk launched the latest round of speculation on Oct. 4, the day he called off his attempts to pull out of the deal and announced he ultimately wanted to acquire Twitter. “Buying Twitter is an accelerator to create X, the app for everything,” he tweeted without further explanation.
But he’s provided at least a little more detail in the past. At Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting in August, Musk told a crowd at a factory near Austin, Texas, that he thought he had “a good idea of where to lead the team. ‘engineered with Twitter to radically improve it’.
And he hinted that managing payments for goods and services would be a key part of the app. Musk said he had a “bigger picture” of what X.com, an online bank he started early in his career and which eventually became part of PayPal, could have been.
“Obviously it could be started from scratch, but I think Twitter would help speed that up by three to five years,” Musk said in August. “So it’s kind of something that I thought was very useful for a long time. I know what to do.”
But it’s not clear that WeChat’s success in China means the same idea would translate to a US or global audience. The use of WeChat is almost universal in China, where most people have never had a computer at home and have gone straight to the internet via mobile phone.
Operated by tech giant Tencent Holding Ltd., the platform has transformed into a one-stop-shop for payments and other services and is beginning to compete in the entertainment arena. It is also a platform for health code apps that the public are required to use to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
China has 1 billion internet users, and nearly all go online by mobile phone, according to the government-sanctioned China Internet Network Information Center. Only 33% use desktop computers, and most of the time also mobile phones. Tencent claims that WeChat had 1.3 billion users worldwide at the end of June.
Tencent and its main Chinese competitor, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, aim to create apps that offer so many services that users cannot easily switch to another app. They are not the only ones.
WeChat added video calling and other messaging features along with shopping, entertainment and other features. Government agencies use it to send health, traffic, and other announcements. WeChat’s payment feature, meanwhile, is so widely used that cafes, museums and some other businesses refuse cash and will only accept payment via WeChat or rival app Ant.
There is no comparable app in the United States, despite the efforts of tech companies.
It’s worth remembering that Musk’s grand visions don’t always work out as he seems to expect. Humans are a long way from colonizing Mars, and its promised fleet of robotaxis remains about as far from reality as the Metaverse.
Twitter’s user base is also tiny compared to its competitors on social platforms. While Facebook, Instagram and TikTok all passed the 1 billion mark a long time ago, Twitter has around 240 million daily users.
“Musk should not only overcome the hurdle of convincing consumers to change their behavior online, but that Twitter is the place to do it,” Enberg said.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald contributed to this story.
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