Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mobile chat apps a craze in India, challenges persist even as user base surges

Rather than surfing the TV channels or the internet, 42-year-old Anupam Gupta, a financial services professional in Mumbai, turns to his mobile phone for the latest buzz on the stock markets. A member of two groups on WhatsApp, a mobile chatapplication,hegets updates on the Sensex, snippets of the latest research reports and can hobnob with traders and analysts all through his work day. What used to be a task reliant on the desktop or laptop has gone mobile, literally. With 60 people to chat with overwork, breaks and meals,Gupta, a 14-year industry veteran, now has the pulse of the markets all the time. Over the past couple of years, millions of mobile phone users across India have noticeably changed their methodofcommunication.
From being a country of person-to-person texts, the country and its booming population of smartphone users (industry estimates sales at around 30 million units for 2013, which are expected to jump to 50 to 60 million this year), are becoming besotted with chat applications such as WhatsApp, Wechat, Line, Dutch-born and India developed Nimbuzz and Hike. Even old faithful Black-Berry Messenger ( BBM), which has gone multi-platform and racked up some 80 million users globally, is hoping for another crack at the market. There could be as many as 100 million users on these apps in India, say analysts tracking the mobile industry.
 
"This [mobile chat app] is an easy, convenient and immediate way to stay connected with a like-minded group," says Gupta. While BBM previously allowed users on the same platform to keep in touch, those outside found themselves disconnected. It is this disparate group that apps such as WhatsApp and Wechat addressed. In two years since its launch,WhatsApp, the brain child of former Yahoo! employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum has racked up 300-million-plus users. Wechat, a product from Tencent Holdings, China, has 272 million and others such as Line claims to have 300 million. In this time, WhatsApp has been the target of an alleged billion-dollar takeover offer from Facebook; and from Snapchat, infamous for a series of sexting rows, for an even bigger $3-billion deal.

Executives at these firms are falling over themselves to tweak their applications for emerging markets and in WhatsApp's case, this meant they were unavailable to squeeze time out for an interview with ET Magazine. Neeraj Arora, an IIT Delhi alum,who moved from helming M&A at Google's local unit to business head at WhatsApp did not respond to requests for an interview. "As I'm sure you can imagine, the WhatsApp team's schedule is currently jam-packed," says Kate Lynch, a spokesperson."However, I can confirm that WhatsApp has 350 million monthly active users worldwide, with 30 million monthly active users in India."

As these applications have gone mainstream, their use has diversified. For example, 31-year-old Poonam Nikam, aMumbaibased marketing manager with Sony Music, relies on a tightly knit BBM group to keep up with the ever changing landscape of food and beverage outlets in Bandra, a tony Mumbai suburb. Spot reviews, menus, service and openings (and re-openings as often happens in Mumbai) are all discussed on her group. "This is the most convenient way of keeping in touch with the bustle in Bandra," she says. "We have all been on BBM for a while and it's a great way to get quick updates."

Thirty-six-year-old Priyatosh Kumar, a Mumbai-based senior manager with Xerox, is a member of at least five active WhatsApp groups and many more where he's a rare visitor. These groups span a wide variety of interests — one for tennis players in his swish apartment complex, another for current and former employees at Xerox, where he works, a third bunch of former mates from Bhubaneswar, the fourth is a collection of executives from assorted companies who exchange the latest news, trends and data on their industries and a collective of Hare Krishna devotees in his housing society.

Kumar says that the utility of these groups varies, depending on its members—his tennis groups use it as a group calendar, his Hare Krishna group exchanges more philosophical notes, while his work-related groups are a great way to stay connected to the market. "There are messages from one group or the other coming in all the time," he says. "This is the best way to stay connected with a heterogeneous group that is geographically dispersed."
 
As the number of social chat apps proliferates, users are beginning getmore discerning with their choices. For example, 25-yearold Gitika Sharma, an executive with a digital advertising agency in Delhi, says that she chose Wechat because she could quickly and simply send voice messages to her close groupof friends."Wechat groups an easy and more private way staying in touch with friends," she Not only canshe send brief voice messages, she can also use newer features such as stickers among this group to keep the chatter flowing long after they have reached home. "Voice messages save the cost of repeated calls [often long distance] and the bother of typing long messages," Sharma adds.

Compared to advanced users such as Sharma, a group of some two dozen senior citizens have formed a BBM group in Bangalore to keep in touch for temple visits and to plan festival celebrations. "We all have BlackBerries and since access is restricted by a PIN [he had his teenage grandson log him in], there's no fear of having to fob off unwanted members," says CV Krishna, a 70-something regular on this group. Sheepishly, the retired college professor confesses to an almost teenage fascination with his 'berry'; the device is the first thing he checks when he wakes up at 6 amwhen he wakes up—and replies to messages — and also the last before he calls it a day."We've even learnt to use emoticons," he laughs. Despite the disadvantage of age, the group has benefited often from bonding together on temple visits.

According to Rahul Razdan, head of Tencent's India operations, the need to be constantly connected is a key driver for the soaring popularity of these apps. "We see the habit of being always connected as a key reason for the popularity of Wechat," he says. The conversations between friends, colleagues and business partners is constantly evolving — from just text messages, to pictures, voice notes, stickers and more. India has the biggest potential for growth for Wechat," he says. Wechat has been on a high-voltage marketing campaign over the past year, with Bollywood stars Parineeti Chopra and Varun Dhawan adding some heft to this push.

It isn't only the newcomers that are hogging the limelight. BBM, the app that perhaps first started the mobile phone group, also wants another crack at this market. When it was first launched BBM became a cost-effective answer to text messages, but this evolved over time as BBM added newfeatures and a more diverse set of people — beyond private sector executives getting one from employers — began to use them. "Convenience, the ability to share multimedia, create groups, share screens, voice and video chats have made BBM a much more compelling communication platform," says BlackBerry's Varghese Thomas, director, corporate communications, India and Saarc. The struggling Canadian phonemaker launched BBM on Android and IOS earlier in 2013 and says today it has some 80 million users globally. India numbers were unavailable.

The going may not be as smooth as Thomas and others think. Already, market watchdog Sebi is keeping a beady eye out on the use of these apps to trade sensitive market news. The Union home ministry has also raised a flag over concerns that these apps are being used to plan and conduct terrorist attacks in the country. In India Inc too, official BlackBerries (or other phones) are closely watched; at least half a dozen people this writer spoke to bemoaned the fact that they were barred from using their official handsets for anything besides work. Hackers regularly take pot shots at these apps, looking to break into private conversations (and periodically succeeding), even as nervous users hope their chats stay private.

Managing these fears, and yet keeping users flocking to their apps will perhaps be the biggest challenge for these companies yet.

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