Tech giant Google on September 18 removed the digital payments firm Paytm’s mobile app from its Play Store, saying the Indian company had violated its gambling policy.
Though Google didn’t specify, a scratch card-based cricket promotion on the app was the irritant. The promotion was removed and the app was back on the Play Store in a few hours, much to the relief of around 39 million active users worried about the safety of their money but it did trigger a debate: is Google too powerful for the Indian app ecosystem?
After all, almost all banks and fintech firms have mobile apps and India is primarily an Android market that makes it heavily dependent on the American search giant.
Paytm founder and CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma accused Google of behaving as the judge, jury and executioner. He said all options were open against Google, as he stressed on an Indian alternative to the Play Store.
There are reports that the government is looking into a request from Indian tech entrepreneurs to launch an Indian app store to take on Google and Apple.
Is it doable? Can India make a new app store from scratch and challenge the tech giants? It may sound easy since an app store is an open repository and there are hundreds of such systems out there. But it is easier said than done.
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They are a habit
When Apple visualised an app store, it was to complement the iPhone experience. Today, Apple's App Store works only with Apple devices and cannot be removed or replaced unless you "jailbreak" the software. The same is true for Google's Play Store but it is more relaxed and a user can install a third-party app store on the side. But when was the last time you went hunting for a Play Store alternative?
Amazon App Store is a third-party marketplace and it comes pre-installed on Fire tablets. Despite having the backing of a giant like Amazon, the platform has limited apps. While Paytm is available, its sister-apps like Paytm Money, Paytm for Business and Paytm Mall are missing. If the company that wants a new app store isn't listing all its apps on a third-party platform, how can you expect smaller developers to follow?
Phonemaker BlackBerry lost prominence and exit the consumer smartphone game back because it couldn't find a way to get more apps listed on BlackBerry World. With a fresh build of BlackBerry 10, it just needed developers to adopt and distribute but, all of them chose to invest with Google and Apple, ultimately marking its death. The company spent billions on advertising and luring developers, but nothing worked. The OS supported Android apps as well, but there were no takers.
It’s big money, seriously big
In Q2 2020, the Play Store had 27,00,000 apps, the App Store had 18,20,000 apps and Amazon had 4,50,000. According to Sensor Tower, users spent a whopping $83.5 billion on apps, of which the Play Store accounted for $29.3 billion and the App Store got the rest of it. These numbers are mind-boggling for essentially a virtual commodity.
Entrepreneurs and developers love the reach of Android and iOS. With billions of users across the globe, one tap and their apps are good to go. The distribution and discoverability make these app stores a lucrative proposition.
Since the app stores are pre-installed, their potential is maximised. With a new app store from India, it'll be hard to find direct channels for installing it.
Why would phone makers ditch their in-house app stores in favour of an Indian option? Xiaomi runs GetApps and uses it as a source to push ads as well as bloatware.
Huawei phones are barred from getting Play Store due to sanctions from the US. So, the company uses its AppGallery as an alternative but the Chinese giant has failed to lure users and its sales have plateaued since Google services were removed.
As many as 99 percent of India's smartphones rely on Android and pretty much all of them have Play Store pre-installed.
Also read: Explained: Why was Paytm removed from Google Play Store and what it means for other gaming platforms
With over a decade of experience, Google has made a reliable product that works for everyone. Whether it's a slow 2G connection or blazing fast WiFi, the Play Store has the fastest download speeds, thanks to its caching, content delivery network and ultra-fast servers.
Google and Apple deploy cutting-edge technology to deliver a superior experience. For the end-user, a government-backed app store versus Google’s Play Store would not be much of a decision.
Similarly, these app stores have strict policies to prevent the spread of malware or any major vulnerability. These initiatives aren't the main highlight for a consumer but play a critical role in maintaining an individual's cyber integrity. Apple's privacy practices are considered the best in the industry and Google deploys specialised teams and a network of white-hate contributors to make apps safe for everyone.
Lastly, these app stores offer much more to the developers. Apple and Google are in touch with developers and offer a host of tools necessary for the complete ecosystem. Though controversial, the in-app payment service has enabled many small developers to monetise their offerings.
While an Indian app store makes for an exciting headline, there is little space or demand for it. Google and Apple have spent years framing security protocols, distribution policies and other service agreements to get to where they are. None of it can be replicated quickly, without hindering the user experience.
This isn't the first time that we are calling for local in the tech space. After the TikTok ban, it was expected that Indian alternatives would rush to bridge the gap but they failed to impress and Facebook-backed Instagram's Reels has easily filled the vacuum.
A made-in-India app store will gain a lot of traction in the short term but once the initial euphoria fades, it will find few takers.
And, if the government and entrepreneurs are concerned about Google and Apple's influence, the first line of action should be regulations or policy changes.
To lure developers, the new app store has to offer something unique, something that Apple and Google don’t. And, being Indian doesn't count as a feature.
These app stores have value because they're unique. The idea of a new app store isn't uncommon.
(Shivam Vahia writes on technology, aviation, and mobility.)