Something very strange is going on in the Indian mobile app industry. In the weeks after the government’s ban on over 100 Chinese-origin apps, including TikTok and PUBG, scores of supposed alternatives have arrived on both Google Play and the Apple App Store. From FAU-G to Bolo India to Mitron, is this the start of a renaissance in Indian app development? Are we looking at future dominated by Made-in-India IM clients, social media platforms, and battle royale shooters? Or is this something else entirely? What’s going on with India’s post-ban app economy? And how will it affect the hundreds of millions of Indian smartphone users?
The pre-ban app economy
To understand the current situation, it makes sense to take a look at the state of Indian app development before the ban. A 2015 ICRIER study claims that as many as 10 percent of all mobile apps worldwide were built in India. Moreover, spurred by rapid year-on-year growth, India is expected to host the world’s largest developer population by 2024. In 2019, Indians downloaded more apps than any other population in the world.
With a massive user base and a large developer population, one might expect that a good chunk of the world’s top mobile apps are built by Indian studios. The numbers, however, tell a different story. According to AppTopia’s 2019 Download Leaders survey, none of the top ten games, social media apps, dating apps, travel apps, shopping apps, or fitness apps on Google Play were developed by Indian studios. A handful of Indian apps, including Hotstar, PhonePe, and JioMusic secured relatively high positions in their respective categories. However, the overall picture is sobering, indeed. Barring mobile finance — an existing area of strength for the Indian economy — and streaming solutions built by the country’s top telecom providers, Indian developers are responsible for creating a surprisingly small number of the world’s top apps. How do we reconcile this discrepancy?
Approximately 130,000 apps on Google Play are made in India, accounting for roughly 4 percent of all apps by volume. In contrast, fewer than 11,000 Chinese apps are available on Google Play, less than 0.5 percent of all apps on the platform. Made-in-India apps get approximately 170,000 downloads on average. However, apps developed in China are ten times as popular, with over 1.9 million downloads on average. This indicates that, while Indian app developers certainly churn out more apps per year, far fewer people actually download them relative to apps from other countries. The developers themselves are likely smaller-scale and generate lower revenue on average. Even within India itself, only one out of the top ten apps from 2019, by download volume, was created by an Indian developer.
These numbers tell us a few things: The ratio of published apps to downloads indicates that quantity matters more than quality for many Indian app developers. The high number of non-Indian top-ten app downloads indicates that Indian users themselves prefer apps created outside the country. While the pre-ban app economy was certainly thriving, engagement figures indicate that Indian developers have a long way to go before delivering critical successes like PUBG, TikTok, or Whatsapp to wide international audiences. The vacuum imposed by the China app ban places the Indian app economy — and Indian app users — in a very unusual situation. In the absence of popular games, social media platforms, and file-sharing tools, Indian users look to Indian developers for solutions. Import substitution has had a history of catastrophic failure in India. Are Indian app developers up to the task?
Privacy, security, and accountability
National security and upholding the privacy of Indian citizens were two key reasons behind the Chinese app ban. Revelations about massive security issues with certain apps of Chinese origin mean that these concerns are definitely justified. However, the implied corollary — that made in India apps are safer and more secure — isn’t necessarily true. One has to look no further than to Aarogya Setu, a popular government-mandated contact-tracing app, to understand security and privacy issues. Designed by the National Institute of Computing, news about security issues with the app was all the more appalling because of the fact that it was a mandatory install for large sections of the population.
If a compulsory app developed by one of the country’s premier institutions faces severe security issues, it’s difficult to see small-scale private sector players doing a better job. A case in point: Cybersecurity experts raised concerns about the Mitron app, a popular TikTok clone. Further analysis revealed that the Indian publisher of Mitron purchased the source code from a Pakistani development studio and simply re-labelled it, with no meaningful changes to the code.
All apps collecting user data, whether built in India or outside, carry an inherent element of risk. In regions like the EU, strong data protection legislation gives consumers a certain degree of protection against the abuse of their data. While the Data Protection Bill offers hope for the future, India presently lacks an explicitly law on data protection. This significantly increases the risk Indian users face when downloading and using made-in-India app alternatives. In case of a data breach or worse, their legal recourse is minimal.
Where do Indian users go from here?
Towards a better Indian app ecosystem
Indian alternatives exist for everything from eCommerce to multiplayer gaming to fitness tracking. However, relative to their international peers, most of these solutions are little more than PoCs. Indian developers need to think beyond bare-bones functionality. International quality isn’t an abstract concept. It means investing considerable amounts of time, resources, and capital towards consistent UX, load-testing, and paradigms like DevOps that integrate security into the development cycle. It’s hard to get better, and it takes time. But this is the direction the Indian app industry needs to move.
The author is founder of The Dark Horse Collective, a B2B content agency.