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Ban on 'made-in-China' apps gives India's TikTok rivals a boost

Chingari and other big beneficiaries enjoy download spike but challenges remain

A ban in India on 59 Chinese apps has led to a surge in the number of people using locally developed software.

MUMBAI -- India's decision to ban 59 'made-in-China' apps is proving a blessing to local software developers, especially alternatives to video-sharing social networking service TikTok, which until the ban had 200 million users in the country.

The Indian government at the end of June blocked apps including ByteDance's TikTok, Tencent Holdings' messaging app WeChat and the UC Browser owned by Alibaba Group Holding. The trigger for the ban is widely believed to be the deadly clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh in the Himalayas on June 15.

Locally developed apps had witnessed a surge in downloads throughout India's coronavirus lockdown which started at the end of March in the South Asian country. The ban on the Chinese apps has provided further impetus.

Here are the five biggest beneficiaries:

Chingari: Developed by techies Biswatma Nayak, Siddharth Gautam and Sumit Ghosh, this Bangalore-based app crossed 11 million downloads in 22 days as of July 2.

"Welcome onboard Bharat! Let's go to 100 million users this month! 11 million in 22 days! Super Excited," Co-founder and Chief of Product and Growth Sumit Ghosh tweeted, using the Hindi word for India. The number of downloads is reported to have crossed 16 million by July 6. Chingari claims to be adding 300,000 videos and 2.2 million video swipes every hour.

Besides hosting short videos, the app also features entertainment and news. The developers are now working on revamping the app's user experience. Creators get paid in redeemable points for every view of their videos, as opposed to TikTok on which users monetize their content to make money.

Roposo: Gurugram-based Roposo was launched in 2014 by Indian Institutes of Technology Delhi alumni Mayank Bhangadia, Avinash Saxena and Kaushal Shubhank. According to media reports, the video-sharing platform had 50 million downloads by the beginning of June, but the figure surged by 22 million in just two days after the ban on Chinese apps.

The Roposo app has over 25 channels on its platform and spans genres including fashion, comedy and jokes, homemade health care solutions, entertainment, singing, sports and news. Some of its popular channels include Haha TV for comedy, Beats for entertainment, Look Good Feel Good for women's cosmetics and Bhakti for religious content.

Its investors include U.S.-based hedge fund Tiger Global and Germany-headquartered media company Bertelsmann SE & Co's investment arm Bertelsmann India Investments. In November, the company was acquired by SoftBank-backed advertising tech unicorn InMobi Group.

Trell: Sequoia Capital-backed Trell is another video-sharing app that is benefiting from the Chinese ban. It claims to be India's No. 1 lifestyle video app. It boasts a community of over 4 million creators, influencers and "Trellers" and allows the sharing and discovery of content across topics such as DIY, recipes, travel, fashion, beauty, sexual wellness and men's grooming.

On July 6, co-founder Pulkit Agarwal joyfully tweeted that the app had over 12 million downloads over the preceding 5 days and surpassed 20 million monthly active users, which had more than doubled in 48 hours. "Our servers have been upgraded now to handle the massive scale," the tweet said. "Stay tuned!"

Sequoia Capital-backed Trell claims to be India's No. 1 lifestyle video app and offers services in the country's various languages. (Promotional video screenshot)

In March, the company raised $4 million in a pre-Series A funding round from investors including Sequoia Capital India's Surge, KTB Network and Fozun RZ Capital. It said it intended to use the funds to strengthen machine-learning and AI capabilities.

Mitron: Perhaps the most controversial of the TikTok alternatives, Mitron gained users as well as notoriety even before the Chinese app ban. Named after a word made popular by Prime Minister Narendra Modi meaning "friends," it was launched in April this year amid India's attempt to promote self-reliance and amid calls for banning Chinese products and services.

But the app faced flak after news broke that its source code was bought from a Pakistan-based software developer. The founders, however, denied the report. It was briefly taken off Google Store but resumed its popularity after the ban on Chinese apps.

"We've now got 23M+ users & over 7M videos created on our #DeshKaApp Mitron! Thanks to your support & faith we've together watched 40M videos per hour & created 750K+ videos in the last 24 hours!," The company tweeted July 4. It added that it had taken 70 days for the app to cross the 10 million download threshold, but less than 3 days to double it.

Earlier this month, the app, developed by IIT graduates Shivank Agarwal and Anish Khandelwal, raised 20 million rupees ($267,000) in seed funding from local funds 3one4 Capital and Letsventure.

Sharechat: The regional social network competes with Helo, another banned ByteDance app. The Twitter-backed platform attracted 15 million new users within 36 hours of the ban. It currently has more than 150 million users, of which 60 million are active.

It allows sharing messages and videos in 15 Indian languages. In August, its parent company Mohalla Tech raised $100 million in Series D funding, with Twitter and TrustBridge Partners as new investors. Other prominent investors include Shunwei Capital, SAIF Capital and Lightspeed Ventures. The company's valuation is estimated at $650 million.

Some experts, however, see challenges for Indian app developers in ensuring they can win over users from Chinese peers. Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder of Greyhound Research, stresses that it is difficult for apps made for a specific country or market to compete with larger players.

"[A]pplications require a critical mass of users to be successful, to learn from and most importantly allow for the scale critical to ensure a good return for investors," Gogia said, adding that there are additional issues and problems for Indian ones. They include the country's lack of both available talent and the ability to invest long term in a product, poor user experience and -- crucially -- the application's viability given the current focus on the domestic market, he said.

But the biggest threat for Indian developers could be if the government again opens up the domestic market to Chinese apps, Gogia said. "If TikTok is back soon after ensuring full compliance with local laws, it will come back with a vengeance and can be expected to spend incrementally on ensuring both retaining and furthering its user base in the country," he said.

Pavel Naiya, senior analyst at Counterpoint Research, meanwhile, cited the importance of the "network effect" on which all social media platforms work, meaning that more users lead to more content, which in turn leads to more users. Long-term success will depend, he said, on the "stickiness factor" that is brought about by continuous innovation.

"If [Indian] apps don't innovate quickly enough [they] will be replaceable if Chinese apps or other tech giants like Facebook, Google and Snapchat start replicating them," he said.

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