The news: South Korean super app Kakao’s nationwide outage disrupted communication, prevented mobile payments from going through, and stranded passengers trying to use ride-sharing services, per The New York Times.
The dangers of app consolidation: Kakao’s outage affected the more than 90% of smartphones in the country that have installed the super app.
- The 11-hour outage was reportedly caused by a data center fire near Seoul that downed 32,000 servers—30% of the company’s total servers.
- The outage locked tens of millions of users out of messaging, payments, online shopping, maps, games, and ride-hailing services.
- Kakao, which started as a messaging platform KakaoTalk, has more than 47.5 million users in South Korea, per Forbes.
- "We did not prepare for a complete shutdown of an entire data center," said Kakao's co-CEO Hong Euntaek, adding that previous emergency drills had mostly involved contingencies for traffic surges.
- Euntaek said Kakao “will increase infrastructure investment so we can be prepared for [the] shutdown of a data center or two.”
- While the majority of Kakao’s systems were restored by Wednesday, miscellaneous functions like payments for taxi and restaurant bookings remain unavailable for some.
Fallout from the outage: The ensuing government and public outrage resulted in the resignation of Kakao’s co-CEO When Nam-koong.
- South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol ratched up scrutiny over the company’s monopoly on services and its apparent lack of contingencies.
- Multiple customer groups are preparing a class-action suit against Kakao, per KBS World, including small-business owners who advertise through Kakao’s channels and claim to have suffered significant losses.
- “Trying to resolve the problem with antitrust regulations doesn’t look effective because KakaoTalk is free and people voluntarily use the app,” Wi Jong-hyun, a business professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul told the Financial Times.
A cautionary tale: Kakao’s post-outage tribulations underscore the dangers of loading myriad services into a monolithic super app—something to keep an eye on for aspiring super apps.
- Uber has consolidated its ride-sharing, food delivery, and booking services into a unified app experience.
- Twitter is the process of being acquired by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, ostensibly to be expanded into a super app.
- Sixty-seven percent of US adults want a super app to manage their digital activities, per PYMNTs.com. Many are likely attracted to the convenience of dealing with fewer service providers.
The bigger picture: When super apps go down, a multiplier effect takes down all the included services.
- Diversifying data centers and enabling app services to work more independently could reduce the effects of widespread outages—or at least speed up recovery.