Domestic developers find an opportunity in the government’s ban on Chinese apps
Amita Shah | 11 Sep, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN RAMESH CHAUDHURY was a high school student in Bikaner, Rajasthan, he was a regular at a cyber café. He observed customers at the café chatting online, coughing up Rs 15 an hour. But chatting did not interest him, programming did. Fifteen years later, at a challenge launched by the Modi Government, Chaudhury stood before a panel of experts, making a presentation in Hindi on his homegrown videoconferencing app as an alternative to the ever popular Zoom.
The son of a farmer in Goluwala village of Hanumangarh district in Rajasthan, Chaudhury had always dreamt of starting his own company, which he decided to call Sarv, meaning ‘whole’ in Sanskrit. “I never wanted to do a regular job,” says the 32-year-old Chaudhury, who took a loan to buy a computer when he joined college. While he was doing his engineering in Jaipur, pressed by the need to support his family financially, he started designing websites for individuals. During his third semester, along with a friend, he registered a company in 2011. But the domain name ‘Sarv’ was unavailable as a Netherland company already owned that name. So the duo purchased the domain name for €23,000.
Communication was key to their venture. Sarv’s first customer paid Rs 5,000 for its services for an internal chartered accountant election process. This gave the company an insight into how mass communication can be used in an election. In 2014, it got involved in the election campaign, adding media like SMS and voice, and earning substantial revenue. That was the turning point. They started cloud telephony, a cost-effective, internet-based voice and data communication where telecommunications applications, switching and storage are hosted by a third party. It became popular. The company, which now has 110 employees, recorded a turnover of over Rs 50 crore in financial year 2019. Three months ago, they launched the Sarv Wave app, which allows chat and videoconferencing with 50 people, offering end-to-end encryption of European Union standards. In a month, it had 14,000 users connecting with 5 lakh people. “It’s an indigenous alternative to Zoom, consuming less data, is user-friendly and addresses privacy concerns. No data will travel out of the country,” says Chaudhury.
Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, witnessed a surge in users this year as people, confined to their homes owing to the outbreak of the coronavirus, flocked to it to connect with friends, colleagues and family. But just as ministers and bureaucrats started holding meetings over Zoom, the Government in April issued an advisory cautioning against using third-party software and apps, following instances of security breaches on apps like Zoom.
While Chaudhury is opening up Sarv Wave to people, including virtual classes for educational institutions, as an Indian alternative to Zoom, nearly 2,500km south, in his office at Infopark, Cherthala, in Kerala’s Alappuhzha district, Joe Sebastian, along with his business partner Tony Thomas, is all set to offer his company Techgentsia’s videoconferencing solutions to the Government. “It’s an honour that our Government will be our client now. We see more potential in the exponentially growing videoconferencing enterprise market and will be primarily looking at the [business-to-business] space. Ours is a superior technology and, hence, more expensive compared to the other videoconferencing solutions. So offering it at a very low price to the general public may not be possible at present,” says Sebastian. However, the company does have plans of providing Vconsol to the general public in future for which talks are on with various partners.
His life has changed since August 20th when the Government announced Techgentsia’s Vconsol as winner of the innovation challenge for the development of videoconferencing solutions under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. Sebastian, whose work involved research, says he has never got so much attention. “I have been flooded with phone calls. I have never spoken this much.” The startup will be given a financial support of Rs 1 crore with an additional Rs 10 lakh towards operations and maintenance for the next three years. Vconsol, customised for India, supporting eight Indian languages besides English, can support up to 80 active participants and 300 passive ones.
Both Sarv Wave and Techgentsia’s Vconsol are among the five apps shortlisted in the innovation challenge from among 1,983 applications. Unlike Chaudhury, Sebastian had never imagined running his own enterprise. Born to a fisherman in coastal Pathirappally village of Alappuzha, he lived in a two-room apartment given by the government to the poor and landless. As a Class 10 student in a government-aided school, he went to work in coir factories to make ends meet. His parents, however, ensured that he got a good education and sent him to pursue Masters in computer application at Kollam. All Sebastian aspired for back then was a good job. He found one in 2000, but the company shut down in 2006 following the dotcom bust. The company’s counterpart in the US, dealing with audioconferencing, offered him a consultant’s job as a researcher. Three years later, along with Thomas, he founded Techgentsia Software Technologies with a sharp eye on videoconferencing. The company offered videoconferencing solutions to clients in the US and Europe. Last year, Techgentsia Software Technologies made a million dollars in revenue. “With coronavirus changing lifestyles and the Government announcing the challenge in April, we found an opportunity to cash in on our experience,” says Sebastian. For four months, his team worked on fine-tuning the app, beating the 11 others who made it to the final stage. Besides Sarv Web and Vconsol, the videoconferencing challenge was won by Peoplink from Hyderabad and Hydrameet from Chennai.
Within days of the Government banning 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, amidst an India-China faceoff at the border, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 4th launched the Atmanirbhar Bharat innovation challenge to encourage Indian apps which can not only address the needs of the domestic market but go beyond it. The winners were announced in August.
ELECTRONICS AND INFORMATION Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad describes it as a defining moment in “atmanirbharata” (self-reliance). “India has been one of the biggest in app downloading. It is high time that apps were uploaded from India. Indians can make apps,” Prasad tells Open.
At the helm of the Digital India programme launched five years ago, Prasad is of the view that it will succeed only if it becomes a mass movement enabling digital inclusion. With the Government looking to fund startups till they are able to take off, the minister recently launched Chunauti, a challenge to boost such startups, particularly in Tier-II towns. “India has proven itself in software services. It should now endeavour to become a hub for software products,” says Prasad.
The app challenge, launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in partnership with the Atal Innovation Mission and Niti Aayog to identify Indian apps that have potential to compete with the global ones, received 6,940 entries from tech entrepreneurs and startups across the country. The challenge was open to nine categories—Business, e-Learning, Entertainment, Games, Health, News, Office and Work from Home, Social Media, and Others. A panel of experts from industry and startups, academia and the Government selected 24 apps and awarded Rs 20 lakh for the first position, Rs 15 lakh for the second and Rs 10 lakh for the third. Another 20 apps were identified for Special Mention.
“The challenge threw up interesting facets. Of the 24 awardees in nine categories, 13 were not investor-backed, five were women and 70 per cent were startups,” says Abhishek Singh, CEO, National e-Governance Division, MeitY. From the 6,940 applications, 100 were shortlisted in each category. The list was further pruned to 50 and then 10, who made presentations before the jury. While Bengaluru had the maximum winners at seven of 24 in total, followed by Chennai and Mumbai, five were from Tier-II and III towns.
Women won all the awards in the Games category. Among the gaming favourites in the challenge was Hitwicket Superstars, co-founded by Keerti Singh and Kashyap Reddy. Jaipur-born Singh became interested in mobile gaming during her MBA in Hyderabad, playing during short breaks. “While I worked with Amazon, I realised how many people were using the mobile as a source of entertainment,” she says.
When Reddy returned from Sweden, they teamed up to begin a startup, Hitwicket, seeking to capture the zeal of cricket fans, tapping the mass appeal of the game, which cuts across geographical, social, economic and age barriers. In the game, the user owns a team that is assigned fictitious players. “There’s fantasy, magical elements. On the phone, one is looking for more than cricket,” says 32-year-old Singh. With women comprising 19 per cent of its nearly 30 lakh gamers, Hitwicket Superstars includes women players. The startup, where 25 per cent of the employees are women, made a revenue of $200,000 in 2019. Hitwicket Superstars itself has 900,000 downloads with 30 per cent of its users from abroad.
Singh, who quit her job at Amazon to get into the then nascent mobile gaming business, says the company’s grand vision is to host Hitwicket World Cup 2023, the grandest e-sport event for cricket, describing it as the next evolution in e-cricket.
The Prime Minister in his Mann Ki Baat on August 30th praised the awardees of the challenge saying indigenous apps were gaining popularity. Soon afterwards, several indigenous apps reportedly raced to the top 10 in the App Store in their categories.
MODI’S PRAISE OF the Koo app, among others, took its founder Mayank Bidawatka by surprise. Amid calls congratulating him, he goes down memory lane to narrate how Koo, a microblogging platform, came into being. Koo is the sound of the koel, a messenger bird. The name is short and Indian. Born in Mumbai, he did his graduation from the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Manila, after which for around a year he worked in the ICICI Bank. He quit the banking job to join his friends at redBus, an online bus-ticketing service, after which he co-founded The Media Ant, a discovery engine for all media options in India. He was also co-founder of Goodbox, a platform to bring thousands of businesses to create a mini app. “Appu [his Koo co-founder Aprameya Radhakrishna) and I decided on a consumer product that could cater to a billion users,” says Bidawatka, 39. They came to the conclusion that this could not be done without breaking the language barrier and launched multiple products. The microblogging app was launched five months ago.
“We found that a minuscule percentage of daily tweets were in Indian languages, in a country of a billion non-English speakers. So the question before us was how to get those who don’t speak English on a microblogging platform,” says Bidawatka.
Filling the vacuum in use of native languages, they introduced Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, drawing lakhs of users, from renowned personalities to common people. Bidawatka says besides “Indianising” the product, they have added the ability to “Koo” using audio and video as well.
Another awardee in the social media category, Aditya Kothari, co-founder of Chingari, an Indian version of TikTok, agrees that to cater to Indians, native languages need to be factored in. On Chingari, a short-video platform which was launched much before the ban of TikTok, there are 10 Indian languages. “We noticed that people were shifting to shorter and shorter media engagements. TikTok proved short media format works,” says Kothari, one of the four co-founders, all in their thirties—Biswatma Nayak, a native of Adaspur in Odisha’s Cuttack district, Sumit Ghosh from Bhilai in Chhattisgarh and Deepak Salvi of Mumbai. Kothari is travelling across villages and towns to study what platforms people are using. The 18-month-old app has over 2.8 crore users and over 2 crore viewers from the remotest village to big cities.
Rohan Verma, whose MapmyIndia Move, emerged winner in the Others category in the challenge for its hyperlocal discovery, says it offers more than Google Maps. “It’s more than GPS. You can type out an address, you can track your vehicle and you can see how far you are from containment zones,” says 34-year-old Verma, whose parents Rakesh and Rashmi founded MapmyIndia in 1995. Delhi-based Verma says maps can change people’s lives and was a crucial component of e-commerce, claiming that 80 per cent of cars in India with navigation systems use it. MapmyIndia’s technologies and maps are used by 5,000 enterprise customers.
Within days of the app awards being announced, the Government banned another set of Chinese Apps, 118 this time, including the popular PUBG, citing security reasons. Anurag Kumar, the winner in the Entertainment section for his app Caption Plus, says the silver lining about the ban was that it gave an opportunity for indigenous apps to showcase themselves. For Kumar, of Adharpur village of Bihar’s Begusarai district, appmaking started as a hobby. It was on evenings after work that Kumar, the chief technology officer for a Delhi-based furniture rental company Fabrento, and his two friends, Rahul and Jitendra, conceptualised Caption Plus in 2018. “We didn’t have funds to promote it. We didn’t spend anything on advertising,” says Kumar, an analytics MBA graduate from IIT Delhi. The adage goes that a picture is worth a thousand words but for their utility app with 22 lakh downloads, a picture is incomplete without a good caption describing it “in its own lyrics” and suitable tags to go with it. From a serene village on Kerala’s coast to a bustling metro, these app developers have crossed geographical barriers, given an Indian twist to their products and are competing with international applications. This may just be the beginning of a new chapter.