This free chat app offers secrecy and bots–and now has 100 million users

A key ingredient these days
A key ingredient these days
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Chat app Telegram announced yesterday (Feb. 23) that it had hit a 100 million monthly users, and that it was adding more at a rate of 350,000 a day. According to Telegram, that growth is fuelled by business users, who have embraced its privacy-centric technologies and its push to make customized bots available. It’s an unlikely success story in a market where it competes with giants like Facebook and Tencent for individual users, and hot startups like Slack for business accounts.

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov tells Quartz that as the app rolled out new features over the last year, an increasing number of business users started to download the app. These features include group chats with admin controls and a higher participant limit, the ability to sync messages and files across different devices, and tools for users to build their own bots within Telegram.

According to Durov, Telegram’s biggest markets are the US and Brazil in the Americas; Italy, Germany and Spain in Europe; Iran in the Middle East, and India, Malaysia and Indonesia in Asia. Telegram is available on most desktop and mobile operating systems.

Telegram’s take-up among business users suggests how the company could find continued growth: Whereas once it aimed for individual users, advertising itself as free and more secure than rival messaging system WhatsApp (which used to charge $0.99 annually, but has since dropped the fee), now Telegram is talking up its use by brands (famously, Pope Francis) and companies. That puts it in competition with the likes of Slack, which lets businesses communicate internally. It also means Telegram will continue to compete for ways to let companies chat and provide services to their customers, something that WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger are also working on.

It’s all part of a larger shift in the mobile world away from apps, and towards delivering services within messaging platforms that offer a “conversational” user interface. Here, users type commands to bots, or humans aided by AI, who can then perform services like send an Uber. “It’s happening because there is broad consumer and developer fatigue with apps. Consumers don’t want to install or use new traditional apps,” Sam Lessin, a founder of a bot startup called Fin, wrote in a widely read blog post in January.

Before Telegram, Durov founded VKontakte, Russia’s biggest social network. In 2011, he refused to comply with Russia government orders to close down the account of the opposition leader. He came under pressure in the ensuing years, and eventually sold his stake in the company to a billionaire ally of Vladimir Putin. He left Russia in 2014 with a $300 million fortune, purchased citizenship in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and planned to build a messaging method that would be safe from government surveillance.

This privacy centered approach is evident in Telegram’s user interface. Users have the option of only being identified by a phone number, which means a user can only be added to another user’s contact list if that phone number has been shared. There’s no way to search for users if they don’t create a public username for themselves. Until public channels were introduced in the last year, there was also no way to find a group chat without an invitation.

Telegram also has a feature called Secret Chat for messages that can’t be forwarded, automatically delete themselves, and are protected by extra encryption. These privacy features meant Telegram became popular with ISIS as a propaganda channel and communication tool, and was apparently used to plot the Paris attacks of November 2015. Telegram deleted dozens of ISIS related channels in the week after the attacks, according to Fortune.

For now, Telegram has no revenues, no profits and no business model. Durov told Fortune that he spends $1 million of his own funds a month to keep Telegram, with its technical staff of 15, running. Telegram’s UK entity, Telegram Messenger LLP, reported that it had £2.2 million ($3 million) in cash at the end of February 2015.

Durov has said he’ll figure out a model eventually. If nothing works out, he’ll ask for donations from users to keep the service going.