In February 2023, Uber came out with a new version of its app that combined its services, like ride-hailing, food delivery, e-scooter rental, flower delivery, and more—all in one place.
Uber started as a ride-hailing company, but now it offers many other services that are all available in the same app. Repeating Uber’s success isn’t easy, but luckily, there’s no need to create an exact copy of its application to succeed. Instead, companies can use mini apps.
This article will explain what mini apps are, how they're made, and how businesses can leverage them.
Imagine an online retailer that wants to launch a new service for its customers, for example, an interior design tool. What’s the best way to do it? Well, the retailer could create a new app and ask customers to download it. This way, it can become a digital ecosystem, like Google or Apple, with many services under one umbrella.
However, having separate applications may affect user retention in the main app. The user may leave it to complete a task elsewhere and not come back. To avoid it, the company can provide new features without asking customers to install a new program.
One way to achieve this is to make a mini app within the existing one. A mini app, also known as a mini program or an applet, is a small program that runs inside a larger application. Mini apps look and work like regular applications, but don't need to be installed separately.
Large apps with many in-app services inside them are often called super apps because they let users complete multiple tasks in a single interface. Popular examples include Uber, Klarna, WeChat, Yandex Go, Alipay, AirAsia, and more.
Mini apps are published using a software development kit (SDK) from the hosting super app and don’t come in a package like APK. This is because they rely on the resources of their parent super app to run, unlike native applications that use the underlying operating system. This makes mini programs cross-platform—they can run in the same super app, whether it's on Android or iOS.
The hosting super app gives the mini app access to device APIs, including Bluetooth, GPS, calendar, phonebook, camera, barcode scanning, and device memory information. It means that despite their small size—usually less than 10 MB—mini apps can be just as powerful as regular ones.
Before a mini app is published, the super app provider reviews it to ensure its security and prevent any unjustified access to the user’s data. For example, a mini app developer needs to explain why their program needs access to the user’s camera.
The way mini apps are built gives them an advantage over the native ones. Here’s how they compare.
To get a better idea of the mini apps’ value, let's explore a few other ways that a company can expand its app’s features. These methods include redirecting to a website, using an in-app web view, and App Clips.
A simple way to add a new service to an app is by including a link to the web. It appears as part of the app's features, but doesn't require much effort in app development and can be added quickly. All that's needed is to ensure the new function is available on the website.
This method is helpful for non-critical features, like in the Walmart example above. The retailer has added a link to their website instead of including its custom cakes service in the shopping app. This works best if the app owner is okay with users leaving the app. Otherwise, if they stay in the browser, it will lower the app retention rate.
A web view is a tool that shows users web pages in the app, without going to a browser. It's almost like having a mini-browser inside the app. Home Depot has done this in its e-commerce app—its installation services hub opens in a web view.
One of the main issues of the web view is that it takes some time to load, which can be frustrating for users. Additionally, the page in the web view requires users to sign in again. This creates unnecessary friction and leads to lower engagement.
Another way to extend the app’s functionality is by using App Clips. App Clips are small apps designed to complete specific tasks without app installation. For example, customers can use App Clips to quickly check a restaurant menu, access a digital vaccine record, or pay for gas.
App Clips are independent of the dominant company’s app, but sometimes they can act as a demo for it. For example, Allset, a food pickup service, helps its partner restaurants make App Clips for making orders. If users plan to use these features frequently, they can download the Allset app—there’s a link in the App Clip interface.
App Clips are sometimes referred to as mini apps, but that's not correct since they are created and used differently. Unlike mini apps, App Clips can’t be found in the App Store, a browser, or a super app. Instead, users discover them on the go, either through Safari, Maps, and Messages or by scanning App Clip codes in the real world. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine that businesses could use them to add new services to their portfolio.
Mini apps have some disadvantages, as shown by examples of companies that have tried to implement them. For example, Snapchat and TikTok, two major social media platforms, have discontinued their mini app programs in recent years for unknown reasons.
Snapchat introduced mini apps in 2020 but closed the project two years later. Based on the company’s annual report, it seems that mini apps couldn’t contribute to the company's priorities of "community growth, revenue growth, and augmented reality."
TikTok also announced that it would host mini apps by third-party providers in 2021. However, TikTok’s mini apps—Jumps—lasted less than two years. While there was no official statement from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, one of TikTok’s partners announced the end of the program in December 2022.
This might mean that third-party mini apps may not be a good fit for companies that operate social media platforms. In the absence of official comments, one can guess that mini apps may have distracted users from the main content feed or chats with their friends—not a desired outcome for a social media app.
There are two ways a company can benefit from mini apps—it can build its own super app with third-party services, or join an existing super app and create a mini app inside it.
In this case, a company becomes partners with others and opens the platform for their mini apps. For example, here’s how we helped a large European retailer Sportmaster transform its e-commerce app into a super app.
This approach is beneficial because it helps a company:
A company can join another company’s digital ecosystem and add its mini app to the super app. Big platforms provide software development kits (SDK) and guides on how to build a mini app—some examples include WeChat, Alipay, and Rakuten. This option might be better for smaller businesses that don’t have enough resources for launching a standalone application.
A company might prefer this way for various reasons:
Mini apps are built using lightweight web technologies, which makes them faster and more cost-effective than native apps. For super app owners, mini apps provide a new source of revenue, increased user engagement, and a competitive edge in the market. Meanwhile, partners who develop mini apps can benefit from exposure to a wider audience, access to new customers, and the ability to monetize their mini apps. If you're considering developing your own super app with mini apps and need guidance, please don't hesitate to contact us.