Mitron, Chingari, Zoho: Can Indian apps win the user war?

Indian alternatives to Chinese apps are seeing a surge in downloads after the government that banned 59 from the neighbouring country following the Galwan standoff Sankalp R Nag felt it was his nationalistic duty to switch to Indian apps after the border face-off between India and China in Galwan Valley in June. The government’s announcement to ban 59 Chinese apps immediately after the standoff only the reinforced his belief. Nag, who runs a gems and jewels shop in Zaveri Bazar, South Mumbai, uninstalled TikTok, where he would occasionally upload videos, and downloaded its Indian alternatives, Roposo and Mitron.

“I found these apps way better than TikTok. After the ban, my TikToker friends and my sister—who had thousands of followers—also opted for the Indian options,” says Nag, 23, who found out about the alternatives via WhatsApp. He also replaced ShareIt with Google Drive and Dropbox to share large files. Emphasising that such steps can hurt China in myriad ways, he adds that they’ve even stopped using and selling Chinese pearls and stones at his shop, Quality Jewels.

At a time when anti-China sentiment is high, many like Nag are shifting their allegiance to Indian apps. On June 29, the ministry of information technology banned 59 Chinese apps, saying they were “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. Asian News International on July 8 reported that the Indian Army that has asked its personnel to delete 89 apps—some Chinese ones, including TikTok, UC Browser and CamScanner, among many others, as well as Facebook, Instagram, Truecaller and ShareChat.

It is believed that these apps provide data from Indian users to the Chinese government. The ministry said to ban the  was to “safeguard the interests” of the world’s second highest number of internet users and “to ensure safety and sovereignty of the Indian cyberspace”. The ban is perceived by many as a soft attack on China, many Indians had also benefited from these Chinese apps—while several earned a chunk of their livelihoods by posting content on platforms such as TikTok, others garnered millions of followers and created a name for themselves with their videos.

The users are now are finding replacements in Indian apps, which claim to also be addressing many of the data security and privacy concerns posed by their Chinese counterparts.  Alternatives to TikTok—Mitron, Chingari, ShareChat’s Moj, Roposo and smaller players such as BoxEngage and Aiisma—claim to have seen a surge in downloads in the last couple of weeks. Mitron says it saw an 11-fold growth after the ban, while Chingari saw over 2.5 million downloads since then. Even bigger companies like Zee5 and Gaana have launched HiPi and HotShots respectively to tap the short video space.

“We are committed to data privacy, security and compliance with local laws, and have taken several measures to ensure they are reflected in our product. We have done security audits too and will continue to do so,” says Shivank Agarwal, founder and CEO of Mitron, a short video and social platform. “We ensure that our users’ data is stored on Indian servers and is accessible only on Mitron servers running on Indian data centres. We empower our users to have control of their data… they can choose to delete any content uploaded by them. Shortly, we will also enable them to control the visibility of their content.”

Agrees Praval Singh, vice president of Zoho. The company’s Zoho Doc Scanner—its answer to the banned Chinese app CamScanner, which scans documents with a phone camera—has seen a 20x daily increase in downloads on the Apple App Store and 30x increase on Google Play Store. “Zoho thrives on privacy and security… 100 percent of our revenues come from subscription fees, not advertisements. Our data sits within Zoho… it doesn’t go to any third-party advertisers or partners. Also, our data centre is in India for our customers in India. That not only means that your data is private, but also that it doesn’t leave the country. Everything is controlled… from the physical layer and the app layer to cloud. That gives our apps extra security,” says Singh.

He, however, concedes that CamScanner did to the market what Maggi did to instant noodles and Jeep to SUVs. The app became the product. “It came early in the market and got it right all the way with great execution,” he says about CamScanner’s success. Industry experts believe the acquisition of users has become easier for Indian startups following the ban. However, their ability to stay will depend on the features and user interface (UI) of the apps.

“More than 500 million Indians use social media and yet none of the major platforms is Made in India. The data collected by these apps leaves the country, and India has no control or jurisdiction over how that data gets used,” says Rajesh Krishnamurthy, creator of Elyments.

The Next Big Thing

While the Indian apps remained in the shadow of the bigger Chinese players so far, the ban provides them an opportunity to become the ‘next big thing in India’. “When we started, we were trying to find our place in a category that was dominated by one large player. But we believed in our mission to build an Indian app for Indian users that respects Indian community standards and laws. Even before the ban on TikTok, Mitron was rapidly gaining ground and we reached the No 1 spot on Play Store,” claims Agarwal.

There have been setbacks along the way though. For instance, when Mitron was removed from Play Store for not complying with policies. Explains Agarwal: “We were just two of us [in the team] then. Play Store has a number of policies that every app has to adhere to. One of them is to have a feature for users to flag inappropriate content in UGC apps which Mitron didn’t have at that time. We immediately addressed that issue.”

BoxEngage, which claims to be a “better Indian alternative of TikTok”, saw 10x surge in monthly active users from 50,000 to 500,000 with over a million signups since the ban. The company pivoted its model from offline entertainment to online after the lockdown. “TikTok was a short video format hosting platform where you could follow and comment,” says Varun Bajaj, co-founder of BoxEngage. “BoxEngage allows Indian content creators to post multiple formats—short and long video—as well as live video for influencers to connect with their fans.”

Aiisma is neither only a content platform nor another TikTok. Instead of offering people money for taking part in surveys, it created a social platform around it.  It was established with the idea of creating a market for user data where people can create 360 degree content format, including videos, pictures and opinions, with rewards or compensations aligned with each. “So far, we’ve not engaged in any marketing cycle since our launch about eight weeks ago. Yet, we have been seeing up to 100-250 percent week-on-week increase in our subscriptions,” says Ankit Chaudhari, founder and CEO, Aiisma.

“This app has given a push to anything which can replace TikTok, but we never positioned ourselves as its replacement. TikTok is a small part of our social media platform which is in conjunction with photographs, podcasts and opinions,” he adds. Zoho Doc Scanner’s Singh, too, says they are developing the product at a rapid pace. “We have close to 21 features of which 18 are available on the free app. You don’t just want to convert photos to PDF, you want to organise documents in folders with tags, translate it into the 17 languages (premium). It’s taking it to the next level.”

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