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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Elon Musk’s X looks too far off the mark as a ‘super app’ shot

Elon Musk’s X looks too far off the mark as a ‘super app’ shot

Rejigged Twitter could lose value without getting anywhere close

Musk claimed to be acting on an original vision for ‘X’ that he had since he bought the domain name in 1999. (AFP)Premium
Musk claimed to be acting on an original vision for ‘X’ that he had since he bought the domain name in 1999. (AFP)

I suppose you could say changing the Twitter bird logo to an ‘X’ makes complete sense. As the recognized icon for ‘make it go away,’ X just about sums up the achievements of Elon Musk’s social network so far. Gone are many of Twitter’s users, half of its advertisers, about 80% of its employees and its operational stability. Gone is its credibility as a leading platform for keeping track of news breaks, a forum for activism and change, or a place to simply get updates on whatever it is you care about. Next up—unless this is all one big ruse, which can’t be discounted—is the one thing that is still giving Musk’s $44 billion deal for the social media site some value: the Twitter brand itself. It will now be known as X, Musk decided over the weekend. The little blue bird, famous internationally, is destined to disappear.

In a series of bewildering corporate-speak tweets on Sunday, X Chief Executive Officer Linda Yaccarino explained Musk’s vision of an app offering audio, video, messaging, banking and “well… everything." She wrote that X would be the “future state of unlimited interactivity."

A generous take on this would be that the Twitter brand carries a lot of baggage, as co-founder Jack Dorsey himself acknowledged on Sunday, and so a fresh start might be the best way to draw a line between the old and the new.

But Musk’s execution of this “rebrand" has shown that this isn’t an idea that has been well thought through. The “interim" X logo looks like a piece of WordArt, for example, created using an off-the-shelf font. For a considerable time on Sunday, the domain name was displaying a holding page for domain name registrar GoDaddy because it had not been configured correctly.

Musk claimed to be acting on an original vision for ‘X’ that he had since he bought the domain name in 1999. Later, wise people advised that PayPal was a better name for a payments provider. That advice helped earn Musk his fortune. Decades on, Musk [still seems] fixated on ‘X’, apparently not content with it being merely the name of one of his children. Evidently lacking sensible people in his ear, Musk may think the X name can help transform Twitter into a ‘super app’ in the mould of China’s WeChat. The Tencent service has around 1.3 billion users and combines multiple services within one immensely powerful app. Other examples include Grab, which offers ride-share, food and financial services in Southeast Asia. On the surface, it should be straightforward to emulate the success of those apps, particularly with the head-start of owning a popular social network that people check multiple times a day. But the promised land of an American super app has been elusive to companies bigger, richer and smarter than X. Western consumers, as well as being more stuck in their ways when it comes to payments and banking, have proven less amiable to having one company control so many things in their lives.

The conditions that made super apps work in Asia, where many people’s first experience of the internet was via mobile, not a desktop machine, simply do not apply in the markets Musk expects to target. US consumers aren’t (for the most part) un- or under-banked, or lacking in credit options. Existing methods of managing money are flawed but adequate enough to make entering with new services an uphill battle. Besides, Musk isn’t even ready—he is still in the process of applying for the necessary regulatory approvals.

Even companies that dominate many market segments—like Google parent Alphabet—have learnt that consumers don’t want everything locked into a super app. This is why Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail and others are all separate pieces of app real estate. Meta Platforms, similarly, has a ‘family of apps.’ Uber Technologies separates its ride-share app from Uber Eats, for food delivery. This is partly due to the simple fact that apps that try to do too much become cluttered and slow.

Musk may soon find himself out of touch with the needs of everyday internet users. And not for the first time, he may have underestimated the difficulty and basic feasibility of implementing a grand idea. His words and actions suggest he thought eliminating bots on Twitter would be trivial, but he ended up making the problem worse. By his frame of expectations, Teslas would be driving themselves from coast-to-coast by now and he would have got quick permission to build a tunnel from New York to Washington DC.

On the latest evidence, Musk now thinks “if done right, [X] would become half of the global financial system." In pursuit of that goal, he is apparently prepared to complete the destruction of a still-valuable asset in Twitter’s brand. Perhaps this way he could claim he did it on purpose.

Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion’s US technology columnist.


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Published: 25 Jul 2023, 09:03 PM IST
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