The race to become India’s TikTok is on—and everyone’s struggling

Finding fans.
Finding fans.
Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas
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Over 500 million Indians who were using TikTok are looking for their next online entertainment hub.

With the Indian government’s decision to ban the Beijing-based app coming at a time when most offline activities are not an option thanks to Covid-19, several local apps are positioning themselves as the “Made in India” alternative to TikTok and inviting its users to their platforms.

Leading the pack are Chingari, Roposo, Mitron, and social network ShareChat, which recently debuted its own short-form video app, Moj.

“This is the digital aatmanirbhar (self-reliant) moment that most Indians have been rooting for,” said Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO of InMobi Group, which last year acquired TikTok rival Roposo.

These attempts, however, might garner limited success because, as of now, none of the Indian players seem ready for the challenge.

Struggle central

It’s not hard to build an app like TikTok, according to Kartik Hosanagar, a professor of technology and digital business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The technological barrier is low,” he added.

Yet, homegrown apps are no match for Tiktok.

For instance, seven-year-old Roposo still has only 55 million users in India, and Mitron, launched in April 2020, has garnered just two million users so far.

In terms of user experience, too, these apps have failed to impress. Reviews on the Google Play Store suggest that Roposo’s interface is weak, it consumes a lot of data, and the camera and filters are not up to the mark.

Chingari, another short-form video app that shot to fame after TikTok got banned, is riddled with glitches, and users have been complaining that it constantly crashes. Some first-time users told Quartz that even when it opens, the app’s interface is not as impressive as that of TikTok. Some users have also complained of phones overheating while using Chingari.

But the poor feedback isn’t holding back Indian entrepreneurs.

Foot in the door

Chingari’s co-founder Sumit Ghosh’s strategy seems to be to ape TikTok—literally. In a Twitter poll, he asked if users would like to import all their TikTok content to Chingari.

Sumit Ghosh on Twitter
Would you?
Image: Twitter/Sumit Ghosh

“There is no shame whatsoever in getting started by cloning things that work, then differentiating over time,” said Ankit Chaudhari, co-founder of consumer data marketplace Aiisma.

Still, it’s not as easy as copy-and-paste.

Importing content won’t bring the users with it. “The first-mover that pioneered any social app (e.g. TikTok) has a larger user base. So, even if another app replicates the concept, people don’t want to join the other app because there are fewer users on it,” said Hosanagar.

For these upcoming apps, their shot at success is almost fully tied to how long the ban on TikTok lasts, said Yugal Joshi, vice-president at Texas-based consultancy Everest Group. Citing the example of Maggi noodles, Joshi added that TikTok’s return could jeopardise the prospects of all these Indian apps.

Moreover, given the Covid-19 crisis, creating and sustaining a brand will prove even harder.

“These Chinese products have global markets and that gives them the scale to invest more,” said Harish HV, an independent analyst tracking India’s startup sector. “For an Indian product to get there is quite tough as these are typically winner-takes-all markets.”