On June 29, little more than a week after a skirmish along the China-India border resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, New Delhi announced the first in what would become a series of bans on Chinese apps. They included widely known products such as UC Browser and WeChat, but the biggest loser was TikTok, which has roughly 200 million monthly active users in India, the company’s largest market outside China. In the northern Indian city of Lucknow, two 21-year-old computer-science students seized the opportunity. Within three weeks, Ajay Shekhar and Abhinav Sharma had sourced code, fixed bugs, and launched a shabby-looking knockoff of TikTok on the Google Play Store.
They kept the name simple: Indian TikTok. It now has almost 1 million downloads.
Since the launch of Indian Tiktok, the government has announced three more bans on Chinese-owned apps, the latest occurring this past Tuesday as border tensions continued to simmer between the two countries. While some Chinese apps have re-entered the market with new avatars, the sudden disappearance of these apps has led to a boom in Indian knockoffs. Of the top 100 social apps in the Google Play Store right now, at least 13 are TikTok clones, and most launched in the past four months.
With the field wide open, India’s app ecosystem has reorganized itself into three tiers. The cash-rich top layer is occupied by products from established tech and media companies, such as the Times Internet, DailyHunt, and ShareChat. The second features companies that are relatively new, such as Mitron and Changa, but have had some impact or attracted major investors. The lowest tier is populated by spammy copycats looking to make a quick buck.
While this last encompasses most of the apps that have been released in the wake of the ban, nobody in India’s tech scene is optimistic that they will be around for long. Prashant Sachan, a co-founder of the social media app Trell, says that “there are many smart developers who follow app trends, put together a bare-bones structure, make some money, and then move on.” India’s government may have even (inadvertently) incentivized this approach through the Self-Sufficient India App Innovation Challenge, a competition to bring to market local versions of banned apps. But Sachan thinks that rushing to get a product out quickly misses the point: “For an app to become India’s TikTok, the company would need a lot of money muscle — for creators, for users, and for good tech talent — all of which require high amounts of capital.”
Realistically, the homegrown apps with the best shot at replacing TikTok are the ones with major financial backers, such as MX TakaTak, Moj, and Josh. In addition to recruiting tech talent and guaranteeing funds for marketing, one of the biggest challenges they face is generating quality content. The online news aggregator DailyHunt has been aggressively trying to lure top TikTok content creators to its platform, Josh, which has notched more than 40 million downloads since its beta launch on July 4. Josh is competing against ShareChat’s Moj and MX TakaTak, which was created by Times Internet (part of BCCL, India’s biggest media group). So far, both have more than 50 million downloads.
One of the creators DailyHunt tried to recruit is Noor Afshan Naaz, who had 9.3 million followers on TikTok before the ban went into effect. Some platforms pay a creator a set amount each month (as determined by follower count) to post a certain number of exclusive videos on its platform and Instagram. On average, a creator with 1 million followers might make around $200 a month, while somebody with as many followers as Naaz can easily make more than $1,300. Naaz ultimately went with MX TakaTak, and while she is hopeful that her audience will follow, that hasn’t happened yet; her current subscriber count is around 800,000. Part of this may be because the platform is new, and part of it may be due to technical shortcomings: MX TakaTak does not have a “live” option, which helps creators drum up new fans, and only recently added a hashtag page, which lets users know what’s trending. “Since I joined, they have added more tunes and better effects,” Naaz said of her new home, “but it still needs work.”
While download numbers for these top-tier apps have been good, they’re nowhere close to the numbers TikTok had in India, which is why many experts suspect that these apps are simply placeholders — products that will do the job until TikTok is reinstated or better international versions come along. “I don’t see the local companies being able to create a successful TikTok clone,” says Akash Senapaty, a longtime product manager for various consumer and gaming apps. This view is echoed by Anindya Ghose, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who doubts the ban will “be a trigger to full-blown local innovation.”
There have, however, been smaller-scale instances of success, including that of former Microsoft employee Shubham Agrawal, who launched his short-form video app, Changa, without the backing of a major company. Changa officially went live in July — shortly after the ban — welcoming new users with instructions on how to transfer content from TikTok. Agrawal decided to create his app even before the ban was imposed. “We were anticipating a ban on Chinese apps or at least hoping that users would want to migrate to a ‘made in India’ platform rather than stick to a Chinese one,” he said. It took him three weeks to code Changa, which has been downloaded more than four million times since release.
In light of stories like Agrawal’s and the realities of international competition, which hasn’t disappeared entirely, asking whether India can produce the perfect TikTok clone may be misguided. For many developers, this is just the start. What’s more important is the space the ban has given them to innovate and experiment with new products. Take, for example, the case of Chill5. Created by a team of developers in Tirupur, a small town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the app was originally intended only to be a platform for short videos. But founder Harish Kumar soon realized he needed a new strategy. “I can’t compete with the big sharks, so I need Chill5 to be different and more than just a short video app,” he remarked. Kumar recently installed features to accommodate event scheduling and long videos, and he is working on a Patreon-like donation system that will allow creators to make money through exclusive content. He is also in talks with local directors about hosting their content on Chill5.
Indian TikTok’s Shekhar and Sharma had similar ambitions. They wanted to transform Indian TikTok into a social media platform that combines features of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and, of course, TikTok. “We want all the social media features on this one platform so that users don’t have to go anywhere else,” says Shekhar. They also added a feature that lets users post photos and are working long hours to create more filters and chat options. Though the app has been recently taken down by Google, Shekhar and Sharma are currently working on launching a new app with the same platform.
Developers who initially jumped at the opportunity to create a new TikTok are already looking beyond that goal. And that’s where the true potential might lie. According to Senapaty, the product manager, “The teams that are being created now will eventually go on to build something really unique in the future.” Ghose, the NYU professor, said something similar, noting that, while the ban may not transform the local app economy, it could drive innovation “in bits and pieces.” After having ceded the digital economy to foreign corporations, there’s reason to believe that the TikTok ban could be a moment of reckoning for India — an opportunity for local developers to start to take back control.