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Is India ready to challenge Google and Apple’s app store duopoly?

On March 1, 2024, Google pulled 10 popular Indian mobile apps—BharatMatrimony, Jeevansathi, Naukri.com, 99acres, Shaadi.com, Truly Madly, QuackQuack, Stage, Altt, and Kuku FM—due to payment policy violations from its Play Store, only to reinstate them. Since then, there has been much discussion on the need for an Indian app store to break up the Google-Apple duopoly.

The tech giants dominate the app world—Google’s Android enjoys 94.94% market share in India, and Apple’s iOS has a 4.22% share.

“Indian companies will comply—for now. But what India needs is an App Store/Play Store that is a part of the Digital Public Infrastructure—like UPI and ONDC. The response needs to be strategic,” wrote Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Founder and Executive Vice Chairman of Info Edge—which runs Jeevansathi, Naukri.com, 99acres, among others—on microblogging site X, tagging Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, soon after the incident. And he wasn’t the only one from India Inc. advocating for an Indian app store.

This isn’t the first time Google removed an app from India from its Play Store. In 2020, it had pulled fintech app Paytm for a few hours, citing violations of policies. After a few months, Paytm Founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma launched a mini app store within the Paytm app to reduce its reliance on Google. Sharma has been vocal about developing an Indian app store since.

From purchasing a toothbrush to obtaining an AI certification, apps are available for almost everything. And India, the second-largest smartphone user market after China, recorded a staggering 25.96 billion app downloads on mobile devices in 2023 and generated good revenue. According to data analytics website Statista, India’s app market revenue has grown to $3.3 billion in 2023 from $2.7 billion in 2022. With a rising economy and increasing internet penetration, a focus on expanding the Digital Stack, and a thriving IT industry, the number is set to rise in the coming days. But, is the time ripe for India’s own app store?

Since the smartphone era began in the late 2000s, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS have been the go-to options. Apps make these operating systems—which power smartphones—the success they are today.

In March, after Google removed those 10 popular apps from its Play Store, IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was quick to respond. “India is very clear, our policy is very clear…our start-ups will get the protection that they need,” he had said.

Google, while re-listing the apps, had said that it “maintains its right to implement and enforce its business model, as established in various courts,” prompting many start-up and tech entrepreneurs to highlight the need for an Indian alternative and stoking the idea of a home-grown app store.

Another reason for a renewed push for an alternative is the app ‘tax’. Start-ups have highlighted the high transaction fees demanded by Big Tech leading to shrinking profit margins. Mayank Kumar, Co-founder of edtech firm upGrad, says that many new companies are willing to pay a commission to get access to the market. “However, in the current ecosystem, this commission often becomes disproportionately high. The larger companies end up taking between 15-30% of the revenue, which makes it extremely challenging for younger companies to profit,” he says.

According to Kumar, older firms that have achieved scale, say, 10 million users or revenues of `2,000-3,000 crore, can navigate the ecosystem better. “However, this creates barriers that prevent many younger companies from scaling effectively, which needs to be addressed and regulated systematically.”

Indus Appstore, a made-in-India solution to this problem, is trying to bridge this gap by listing popular Indian apps. The PhonePe-owned company has a long carousel of never-ending apps ranging from popular Indian names like Blinkit, MakeMyTrip, Paytm, and JioCinema to even international brands such as Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. “The Indian tech ecosystem has grown significantly in the last decade. Indian companies are building population-scale tech products that cater to the diverse needs of the Indian market, one of the largest smartphone markets in the world,” says Indus Appstore Co-founder Akash Dongre.

The growing digital infrastructure and a robust India Stack give home-grown firms a rare opportunity. “An Indian app store presents a fascinating and compelling opportunity. Such an app store could steer inclusive digital growth and offer a richer user experience, catering to India’s unique voice, vernacular, and video landscape,” says Prabhu Ram, Head of Industry Intelligence Group at CyberMedia Research. By catering to India, this app store can empower domestic app development and prioritise local languages, he adds.

Agrees Tarun Pathak, Research Director at Counterpoint Research. “A local app store could potentially offer a more Indianised version of an app store, catering to the specific needs and preferences of Indian developers and consumers.” However, developers will go where the critical mass resides, and most consumers are used to downloading apps from the Apple App Store and Play Store, he adds.

Developers’ Dilemma
The question remains whether a government-driven approach is the way forward or should the market take its course? A government-driven one reaps benefits such as regulatory oversight, accessibility, and economic strategy that is in favour of the country. However, it could also lead to potential downsides like slow-moving bureaucracy and stifled innovation, say experts. The government may be less agile and innovative compared to a start-up, which could offer cutting-edge technology and operational efficiency but might struggle with security and market fragmentation.

UpGrad’s Kumar is of the opinion that the government could act as a facilitator but the app store should be built by an Indian brand. “With the leverage of the government, infrastructure can be then laid and on top of that, many of us will build good business and good companies, utilising this foundational support to innovate and expand effectively,” he says.

But transitioning to a made-in-India app store poses several challenges for developers, primarily centred around user adoption and financial viability. Developers might initially struggle with a smaller user base, which can significantly affect their app’s visibility and profitability compared to established international platforms with vast global audiences.

Pathak highlights the importance of discovery and visibility for developers. “The main challenge lies in discovery and visibility. Unless the new app store is pre-installed by OEMs, it might struggle to gain traction. Customers generally opt for convenience, and making a switch after several smartphones might not be easy,” he says.

Having experienced the initial roadblocks, Indus Appstore’s Dongre explains, “For developers, the biggest challenge will be the scale of distribution an app store can provide. Global competition has acquired users by virtue of being a preloaded application on every smartphone sold in India. Indian app stores will have to ensure that they solve for distribution to help developers acquire users through them.”

Attracting developers to build for a home-grown platform is one problem, but getting the user to sideload the app store is another. It will require partnerships and a lot of capital. “How the app is going to be discovered is important. Unless you mandate the OEMs to pre-install a new app store, visibility will remain a challenge,” says Pathak. He explains that most smartphone users are on the fourth or fifth smartphone of their lives. They are used to downloading apps from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store since their first smartphone. Making a switch will not be easy.

“An Indian app store would require a fair, level playing field to compete with global tech giants. The entry of new players into the market is severely restricted as some of the existing players have signed opaque revenue-sharing agreements with OEMs,” says Dongre. Regulators and policymakers need to prevent the abuse of dominance by these players through unfair practices, he adds. “Globally, regulators have started flagging these unfair practices and started working towards opening up the market.”

The Way Ahead
Some experts feel that the Indus Appstore is a step in the right direction. It has seen rapid adoption, with over 1 million instals within a month of its launch in February 2024. It offers over 200,000 mobile apps and games across 45 categories.

It also fixes the issue of payment gateways. The app store allows app and game developers to choose any third-party payment gateway for in-app billing, charging no commission if an external payment gateway is used. To accelerate developer registrations, Indus is also offering zero listing fees to developers for one year. The app store also provides some bespoke solutions for the Indian demographic. It is available in 12 Indian languages, with voice search enabled and even a video-led discovery model.

While it aims to challenge the dominance of Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, it is a long way from success. It will depend on the brand’s ability to woo both developers and users, navigate the regulatory landscape, forge partnerships, and develop effective monetisation strategies. All this, while keeping an eye on a pivotal technology such as Gen AI.

The advent of AI is transforming our interaction with technology. It’s creating a paradigm shift that could make conventional app stores less relevant. Two companies, Rabbit and Humane, are already imagining hardware without apps in the form we’ve come to expect. Meta’s Ray-Ban smart glass is also trying to make the human-technology interface much less screen-based.

Pathak believes the future of smartphones will go beyond app stores. It may get replaced with Gen AI assistants, which will lead to a more customised user experience.

However, these advancements are still in their very early stages. Their impact on the future of app stores will depend on how well they meet user needs and how they evolve with the ever-changing tech landscape. Till then, both developers and users will have to depend on app stores. BusinessToday

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