Flipkart’s wannabe WeChat ambition is ill advised

K Vaitheeswaran June 16, 2017 5 min

flipkart-all-in-one-app

Flipkart recently announced plans to launch a mother-of-all-apps that will go beyond shopping and allow users to do other stuff like order food delivery, hail a cab, book a vacation and do many other things through a common interface.

On the face of it, it seems like a smart idea to get their large user base to perform additional activities and increase revenues. At a time when Amazon is consolidating its position in India, Flipkart can ill afford any distractions, and I hope this does not become one. It must also pull off a really slick and seamless user interface, which is critical for multitasking apps on small smartphone form factors.

Some bigger challenges lie ahead though.

Firstly, this idea is as old as the internet hills. In the 1990s, in the early internet wave, portals like AOL, Yahoo and MSN were the gateways to most online services including news, entertainment and shopping. Over time, as individual brands were built, consumers started preferring to directly visit the destination sites, like Amazon or Ebay, instead of going via Yahoo. If anything, destination apps and brands have become stronger today.

At a time when Amazon is consolidating its position in India, Flipkart can ill afford any distractions, and I hope this does not become one. It must also pull off a really slick and seamless user interface, which is critical for multitasking apps on small smartphone form factors  

Such aggregation has been attempted earlier in related services, but the results have been modest. A few years ago, some online travel agencies aggregated IRCTC services. I am not sure how many customers went online to buy an air ticket from Bengaluru to Mumbai, but then suddenly decided to take the train because it was cheaper and available on the same site.

Also read: Snapdeal shareholders still divided on deal with Flipkart

Every time, I use the Jet Airways app to buy a ticket, I am urged (not surged!) to book Uber through the same app. Convenient? Not really. Once I land, I fire up the Uber app directly. Sometime ago, there were many media stories about the Uber app being integrated deeply into Facebook Messenger so that people conversing about a dinner at a restaurant or a date at a cafe could book a cab through Messenger itself. I am not sure about how many users this has garnered, but I would be surprised if the number was very high.

Consumers evolve on the internet in an orderly manner — it is called the rule of Cs. Consumers connect, communicate, create communities and consume content before moving up to commerce. This order has not changed from the time of the desktop browser to the day of mobile apps and is unlikely to change anytime soon. We read TripAdvisor reviews before booking a room in a hotel we have not stayed in earlier, but surely never the other way round. Thinking up sticky services that follow this chain will be a tough task for Flipkart.

Now, why would I need a common third party app to do multiple unrelated tasks if my smartphone app is rapidly evolving into an efficient digital assistant?  

I also suspect consumers will increasingly start completing multiple activities from their smartphone operating system itself. I regularly use Siri to book a cab, set reminders, send out short emails, make calls or set alarms, and I am sure millions love similar features on Google Now. Now, why would I need a common third party app to do multiple unrelated tasks if my smartphone app is rapidly evolving into an efficient digital assistant?

Also read: Patanjali to drive hard into ecommerce, in talks with Amazon, Flipkart, BigBasket

Incidentally, Snapdeal has tried this strategy by offering other services on its app, but then Snapdeal has tried almost everything recently. More recently, Haptik and Tapzo have launched apps which you can use to access other apps and hail cabs, book flight tickets, check restaurant reviews and recharge your mobile, but the primary attraction seems to be additional discounts on the services than any genuine value addition. I suspect once commercial benefits are removed, consumers will directly fire up their favourite apps.

To be fair, there is a successful implementation of such a service in China. Every day, millions of Tencent WeChat messaging app users book appointments with the doctor, hail cabs, reserve tables at restaurants, order and pay online for food etc.

That Flipkart chose to announce this new approach just a few months after raising big money from Tencent suggests that this may be more influenced by the power of a billion dollars than any insights into India  

But there’s a reason for this. China is fundamentally a government-supported walled garden and it is impossible to build a strong non-Chinese service that competes with a local Chinese brand. Ask Amazon, Facebook, Google and Uber. Thanks to the local protection, Tencent is able to aggregate a few strong local brands and create a solid aggregated offering.

This will not work in India where consumers are free to use any brand they prefer without state intervention. This effectively destroys the concept of walled gardens, which is essential for aggregated offerings to work. Frankly, I cannot see customers going to the Flipkart app to buy tickets at IRCTC or Bookmyshow; post a used bean bag for sale on OLX, hail an Uber or — this should be fun — shop at Amazon.

That Flipkart chose to announce this new approach just a few months after raising big money from Tencent suggests that this may be more influenced by the power of a billion dollars than any insights into India.

Also read: Amazon vs Flipkart and Uber vs Ola. It’s not about capital dumping — it’s about good and bad investments

Lead image: Angela Anthony Pereira


               

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