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What’s happening in SE Asia is great, but let’s not forget the Indian chat apps


There’s been quite a bit of focus on the chat app landscape over the last little while, partly because it’s one of the most competitive and fast moving industries in technology right now. Every few weeks or months we get staggering updates from the likes of WeChat, Line, KakaoTalk or Viber, or we see numbers that rock our socks off. By the end of 2015, it’ll be interesting to look back at how these years played out in the social media and chat app media battles for Asia and formed a mobile landscape unique to Asia. But a huge country that we often neglect in this social arena is India. The country has a number of social messaging apps of its own.

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But the problem with India is it faces a very low smartphone penetration rate. By some estimates, India’s smartphone penetration sits at a measly four percent, that’s in stark contrast to China’s 22%. In India’s cities, it’s a little better, with an estimated 27-million people using smartphones right now. Nevertheless, this inevitably shapes the innovation of chat apps in the billion-person country.

Chat apps are a steady transition from SMS

In the case of East Asian apps like WeChat, Line, and KakaoTalk, where smartphone penetration is quite high, they’ve transitioned many of their users away from boring SMS and directly into whole new interfaces that include a host of features that even Facebook won’t deliver. Now, of course, chat apps like Whatsapp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and others do have a strong presence in the market, but what we’re also seeing are the rumblings of new startups tackling more organic local problems.

There’s a handful of ‘depart-from-SMS’ apps for Indian mobile users including 160by2, Free SMS in India, Way2SMS, and the list goes on.

And we’re still seeing significant innovation with SIMs and SMS in India. It’s a country where you can check your train schedule via SMS and SMS-enabled search engines. These services obviously grow out of an environment not ready for widespread smartphones yet.

The new guard of Indian chat apps

But lately we’ve been seeing newer apps that depart from SMS completely or take SMS to a whole new area. There are apps like GupShup, which added nine more Indian local languages last month to target a wider population, and Plustxt, which just got a purported US$2-million in funding from One97 to do the same. There’s also the beautiful Hike Messenger and the well known and very popular Nimbuzz, which has over 150-million users around the world, many of which are in India and the Middle East. There are also some unique India-made apps like Textoo, which allows users to send SMS anywhere in the world.

Now, India’s smartphone market is about to explode. This year it saw a 52% boost over last year, and no doubt as the cost of Android smartphones continue to drop, we’re going to see that pick up. Therefore, these Indian startups and their international competitors are going to be competing in a hotter battleground for India’s social netizens.

By next year, is it possible that we’ll start to see Indian apps looking outside of India for growth? GupShup is already in English and looking into Chinese. In fact, most Indians apps have to start out in English from the get go. And since these apps grow up in India, facing vastly different challenges than WeChat, Whatsapp, Viber, and those others, we’re bound to see other unique innovations coming out of the country.

This article by Anh-Minh Do originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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