On 24 November, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned the access in India to another 43 mobile apps “for engaging in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”. These are mostly e-commerce, social networking and dating applications.
They include a clutch of online apps tied to the dominant Chinese e-commerce player Alibaba including AliExpress and Alipay Cashier; dating apps like WeDate, Date in Asia and Chinese Social; business card reader CamCard; TV apps like WeTV and MangoTV and China’s answer to Amazon – Taobao. Full list here.
This is the third tranche of mobile apps banned in India this year: 59 apps were banned in June and another 118 in September.
The Indian app developer community has largely welcomed the latest bans:
Says Teja Gudluru, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the expert advice app UDo-now.com: “During the last two bans on apps, home grown apps have seen a huge increase in the number of downloads. Domestic application developers are being seen as a boost to the Indian economy.”
Adds Dr Ajay Data, founder and CEO of the company behind the videoconferencing app VideoMeet: “The Indian user base is also supporting the authorities on this front due to the geopolitical tensions our country is facing. The realisation of how data breaching can impact their businesses in the long run, has also strengthened. It is an opportune time for the Indian tech and IT community to work towards making India's IT framework more resilient. This support to homegrown apps will help us in going global.”
A World Without Apps?
Coincidentally, on the day that India announced the latest list of banned apps, the New York Times on its technology page asked its readers to “Imagine a world without apps”. The author asked: “What if we played games, shopped, watched Netflix and read news on our smartphones – without using apps?”
The push to even consider this possibility arises out of the increasingly oppressive control that the duopoly of Google and Apple exerts over their app shops, Google Play and App Store respectively.
If your phone runs on Google’s operating system, Android, you have no choice but to select your apps from whatever Google Play offers — indeed many of the most common apps come preloaded on your handset. Owners of iPhones have to depend on App Store. While this may not be apparent to users who find most apps are free to use, they pay a price by parting with enormous amounts of personal data every time they use an app. In fact, this is the principal concern of the Indian government with apps owned and controlled by Chinese entities.
Developers Pay A Stiff Price
As many India-based developers have found out the hard way, they too pay a stiff price. Earlier this year, after howls of protest, Google postponed to next year, but did not withdraw, a notification that would allow them to scoop up 30 per cent of the income earned by developers who placed their apps in Google Play.
Apple has a similar regulation. Both companies also maintain tight control on how apps make their money: the leading Indian digital payments app, Paytm found its app suspended by Google, in September, albeit briefly, for what was at best a technical violation: offering a cashback to UPI payment users, with its cricket tie-up game.
Paytm was stung into responding by starting its own Mini App store for Android phone users, where developers would not be charged any commission on their earnings. The company would make its money by leveraging its payment bank and wallet. Paytm mini apps are custom-built mobile websites that have an app-like appearance and offer direct access to discover, browse and pay, without actually having to download or install an app.
In October, Paytm organised a developers conference inviting Indian startups to join in creating such an ecosystem of atmanirbhar applications, that would work directly from mobile browsers and were ‘lite’ enough even for very basic handsets. Over 5,000 joined the conference and some 300 service providers including big names like Domino’s Pizza, Ola, Netmeds, etc came on board.
Progressive Web Application
The Paytm alternative is at the vanguard of a movement to substitute what is known as PWA or a progressive web application for a mobile app hosted at Google Play or App Store. Unlike apps as we know them today, PWAs take up no space on your phone even if you install a shortcut icon; the developer doesn’t need to go through Google or Apple and user information cannot be exploited by the app makers to the extent that conventional apps allow.
Interestingly, Amazon, another Internet biggie, has been among the first to move away from the app ‘big two’. It will soon launch a new games service called Luna, based in the cloud and accessible through PC or mobile browsers. And Microsoft has announced that it will roll out a web version of its Xbox gaming console, called xCloud.
The indigenous Mini App store from Paytm has managed to go live through the browser route ahead of these global giants.
Industry watchers don’t expect the conventional phone app controlled by Google or Apple, to roll over and die tomorrow. But push has come to shove — and in the foreseeable future, our smartphones like PCs or laptops, will connect to the applications of our choice be it e-commerce or social, by tapping into them directly from the Internet. It is likely to be a leaner, less data-dependent and much more private way of doing what we choose to do, with our phones.
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