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This Chinese map app wants to be a super app for everything outdoors

Amap is not satisfied with just giving you directions. It wants to offer you everything from real estate listings to car rentals.

November 22, 2023
a phone with the map app peeling upward. icons for a cup of tea, a delivery service, a new home, a car, and plane tickets surround the icon of the user
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Thanksgiving is almost here. This year, when you get together with your family, may I suggest a fun little game that reinvents hide-and-seek for the digital age?

When I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I went to a park with dozens of strangers to play the “cat-and-mouse game,” which combines old-fashioned hide-and-seek with modern technology. Instead of trying to guess where everyone was, we shared live locations with the group and monitored each other’s paths as the “cats” and “mice” tried to capture or avoid each other. A grassroots invention of the Chinese internet, the game became viral sometime earlier this year and now draws thousands of people every week. 

In a story yesterday, I wrote about how the game works and how it uses Amap, the Chinese map app owned by Alibaba. If you want to know more (and figure out if I won!), read my story here

Despite not being a sporty person, I did really enjoy the two cat-and-mouse games I participated in. The way they blend together digital experiences and real-life interactions felt natural and refreshing. 

They also changed how I view map apps. Even though I’ve had Google Maps and Apple Maps on my phone forever, I never thought of them as anything more than trip-planning tools; I certainly never thought of them as gaming apps or ways to bring people together IRL.

I’m not alone. Before one of the games started, the organizer was explaining the rules and the technical set-up, which requires people to join a group on Amap to share locations.

“There are groups in Amap now?” one participant asked.

“Every app has a group function nowadays,” another answered.

It was only a quip, but it also perfectly captured a weird characteristic, or maybe problem, of the Chinese app ecosystem: every app is trying to be something it isn’t.

Amap, for example, is one of the most widely used map and navigation apps in China today. But when I open it on my phone, I can see over 30 functions that you wouldn’t find on Western-equivalent apps.

Some of them still feel integral to the map experience, like recording when you last filled your car with gas, calling for roadside assistance, or comparing the prices of ride-hailing services. Others are pretty far removed: the app lets me check the purchase price of cars and contact a dealership, set up exercise goals and record my progress, and even—to my surprise—check out real estate listings. Just last week, Amap quietly added a new feature to its portfolio: you can hire a courier to do chores, like delivering a gift to the other side of the city.

Even though Amap had nothing to do with developing the cat-and-mouse game, it has tried to develop games in the past. (They didn’t catch on.) And now the company is riding the wave of cat-and-mouse popularity by adding new features to make the map more convenient for organizing a game; it also allows users to browse through the games being organized around the country every week. 

To me, this all feeds into Amap’s goal of becoming an aggregator of local information and services. And it certainly seems that Amap wants to be your app of choice whenever you need any service outside your home. In fact, back in 2019, the company declared it was changing from a navigation app to a “national platform for going out.” (Amap declined to make anyone available for an interview for my story.) 

What’s happening with Amap is a good example of how Chinese apps have always been obsessed with becoming super-apps. Wallet apps want to become social networks; social networks want to be personal loan providers; and food delivery apps are showing you TikTok videos and livestreams. Map apps are primed for such ambitions: almost every phone has a map app installed, and the scale of traffic any such app gets every day is invaluable to pushing users toward more and more services offered by the developer, in this case Alibaba.

Maybe it’s the quest for infinite scaling up that is original sin of Silicon Valley, or maybe it’s because there are successful examples in Asia, particularly WeChat and Alipay, for everyone to look to. The app ecosystem in China is often guided by this monopolistic notion that every app, no matter how niche it is, can and should become a platform for other barely related services. The result is that every app becomes a dense pile of trivial functions, most of which end up as nothing but a waste of storage space. Sometimes they even distract or obstruct users from doing what they originally intended to do with the app.

The dream of the super-app isn’t unique to China; Elon Musk is still supposedly working on transforming X into the all-in-one app for the West. But Chinese tech companies are already much further ahead. Unfortunately, their success has also revealed the risks that come with the super app—like the tight control they can have on freedom of speech, which I wrote about last year.

All this said, viral trends come and go. Even though I’ve enjoyed the games I played, I’m sure the popularity of cat-and-mouse will wind down after a while. I mean, how many people are still playing Pokémon Go? But the trend does serve as a good example of how a map app can actually be useful for something completely different from its initial purpose. 

Is that enough for Amap to really become the next super-app? I don’t think so. I’ll still prefer to get my apartment listings and step counts somewhere else—sorry.

What do you think of the Chinese tech companies’ perpetual pursuit of building super-apps? Let me know your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Catch up with China

1. China says it will step up its efforts to stop fentanyl chemicals from flowing to overseas labs. (Washington Post $)

2. Following the Biden-Xi meeting last week, Chinese state media has started taking a much friendlier tone toward the US, which has rarely happened in the last few years. (Associated Press)

3. Applied Materials, the largest US semiconductor equipment maker, is being investigated by the US Department of Justice for potentially selling products to Chinese chipmaker TSMC without export licenses. (Reuters $)

4. China has been “the world’s factory” for decades, but new e-commerce platforms like Shein and Temu are trying to change how the world shops. (Rest of World)

5. Xiaomi, one of the top Chinese smartphone brands, finally showed what its first electric-vehicle model looks like. (Mashable)

6. Tencent says it’s not affected by the US chips restrictions because it has stockpiled Nvidia chips “for at least a couple more generations.” (Reuters $)

Lost in translation

For Chinese EV owners, the early bird doesn’t always catch the worm. On November 8, over 300 owners of the XPeng P7, a Chinese EV model released in 2020, wrote a joint complaint letter to the company. Even though they paid extra to get the highest software upgrade when they purchased their cars, they were told to pay even more when the company released its latest software update this year. 

According to the Chinese publication Powerhouse, the development cycle of a new EV model is only three years, while a gas car model takes five years. This accelerated pace, which more closely mirrors that of the tech gadget industry, means first-generation EVs can quickly become outdated. The constant upgrades in chip technology, battery capabilities, and self-driving features mean it’s harder to make sure upgrades are compatible with existing models across generations. Chinese brands like XPeng, LiAuto, Jike, and Aito have all faced controversies over issues like the discontinuation of features within two years of launch and the introduction of second-generation features that lack support for first-generation models.

One more thing

Not everyone can be elected to the National People’s Congress, but a political education center in Hangzhou built a “People's Congress Metaverse” for the public to experience in virtual reality what it’s like to join a meeting. Amazing things are happening in the metaverse! Take notes, Zuckerberg.

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