Blogger’s Park: Patriotism is trending

February 26, 2021 6:57 AM

Are Indian apps ready to stage a Koo?

Increasingly, faux patriotism and geo-political conflicts are impacting businessesIncreasingly, faux patriotism and geo-political conflicts are impacting businesses

By Lloyd Mathias

Earlier this month, Twitter, which has over 17 million users in India, blocked 250 accounts in response to a demand by the government. These included accounts of activists and organisations supporting the ongoing farmer protests. A few hours later, Twitter restored the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” for continuing the suspension. The government then ordered Twitter to block the accounts again, and threatened people working for the company in India with legal action and even imprisonment if they refused to do so.

Senior government officials and ministers followed this up with moving their Twitter accounts to Koo, a homegrown app — very similar to Twitter — that was launched in 2020, and won the government’s Atmanirbhar App Innovation Challenge. In the past weeks, many more ministers and celebrities opened Koo accounts, getting the app to already reach three million users.

Rising to the occasion

Increasingly, faux patriotism and geo-political conflicts are impacting businesses. Last June, India banned the hugely popular video platform TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps on the grounds that these were ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India’. TikTok, which had over 115 million users at its peak, left a huge gap and a host of local apps like Mitron, Chingari, Roposo, Moj and Bolo Indya jumped in. Many of these have raked up significant instals as they jostle for market dominance amidst surging valuations.

When WhatsApp announced that they would share info with parent Facebook, there were justifiable concerns of privacy, getting many users to move to messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. Indian messaging apps like Hike and multilingual social network ShareChat, too, saw a surge in users. More recently, the government’s National Informatics Centre (NIC) has launched its own instant messaging platform called Sandes.

There are two primary drivers for change and the adoption of Indian platforms. Firstly, the ‘push’ from the government through the ‘Make in India’, ‘Vocal for Local’ and ‘Atmanirbhar’ calls appealing to patriotism and the need to support local businesses. The second arises from concerns about privacy, data localisation and security.

Test of Indianness

While these domestic platforms and apps may see an upsurge in adoption and usage in the short term, they will need to sustain this over a period of time. This will happen only through a sharp insight into users, a world-class usage experience and constant innovation; as also deep technical skills that drive near-intuitive algorithms, and ensure data protection and minimal outages. And, of course, mass adoption and a long-term commitment to brand building. But even all these do not guarantee success. In an increasingly globalised world, users will like to communicate with people around the world; and until the India-owned platform can become a true global leader attracting users from all over, the usage experience will remain limiting.

Furthermore, with funding for most apps coming from global venture capital companies, having a desi founder is no assurance of Indian ownership. Is a platform truly Indian if it is founded by Indians/ headquartered in India/ has predominantly Indian employees/ IP that is local/ or is majority owned by Indian shareholders? Or is it just about bending to local authority? No easy answers.

The cheer for Indian-owned apps will also be sentiment driven, and not a lasting reason for loyalty. During last year’s Indo-China border skirmish, many organisations, including retailers, gave a call for the boycott of Chinese goods, and the very visible mobile phone category was in the direct line of fire. Yet, within a couple of months, Chinese brands — Xiaomi, One Plus, Vivo, Oppo — continued their dominance of the Indian phone market. Clearly, patriotism alone is not good enough!

The author is an angel investor and business strategist

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