Last year, Omaimah Muhammad, a second-year management student in Lahore, Pakistan, started using a Chinese app called ShareIt to send pictures, lengthy class notes, and textbooks to her friends. “I had operation management this semester and the [textbook] was extremely long [at 800 pages],” Muhammad told Rest of World. “So I just transferred it via ShareIt.” 

Muhammad is one of ShareIt’s millions of monthly active users in Pakistan who have turned to the file-transfer app to send photos, videos, and games to each other without having to use the internet. ShareIt connects different devices by creating local Wi-Fi hotspots — its sharing process is similar to Apple’s AirDrop — that transfer files much faster than Bluetooth. 

The app has emerged as an attractive alternative to sharing files over WhatsApp or Telegram in countries where data costs are prohibitively expensive. Users in South Africa, the Philippines, and Pakistan told Rest of World that ShareIt has allowed them to save costs on mobile data, although they have recently also had to put up with many in-app adverts. “It’s cost-effective,” Mukondeleli Irene Mmbara, a financial clerk in Thohoyandou, a small town in South Africa, told Rest of World. “Data is expensive [on] this side.” She has used the app to transfer photos, apps, and music to friends. In South Africa, people can pay up to $5.29 for one gigabyte of data. According to reporting by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, this cost is equivalent to nearly four hours of work at the minimum wage. 

ShareIt was first developed in the mid-2010s by a group of employees at Chinese tech company Lenovo, prompted by their attempts to share photos while hiking in an area with poor connectivity. It was first launched as Eggplant Express, an app for the domestic market. But as internet coverage became ubiquitous in China, ShareIt spun off into a separate company around 2015, expanding overseas to emerging markets with poorer connectivity. 

2.4 billion The number of downloads ShareIt claims to have reached globally.

According to ShareIt, in 2016, it had 600 million users globally — including 150 million in India, its largest market. ShareIt executives discovered the biggest source of its growth in the country: Local phone shops had started selling and transferring new apps to customers to make a quick buck. By 2019, ShareIt had racked up over 400 million downloads in India. It was so dependent on this market that it fashioned itself as an “Indian company,” even though it was Chinese-founded, said Jason Wong, ShareIt’s managing director for India, to a local publication that year. “If we lose the India market, we need to shut our business down.”

ShareIt did lose the India market — it was banned in the country in June 2020, alongside 58 other apps of Chinese origin. But instead of shutting down, the company recovered by shifting its focus to Southeast Asia. ShareIt claims it has reached 2.4 billion downloads globally, with 20 million monthly active users in South Africa and 40 million in the Philippines. It also claims to have millions of users in Indonesia, though it didn’t share exact figures.

Despite its growing user base, some see it as an uphill struggle for ShareIt to retain users as internet coverage continues to improve globally. Ian Goh, managing partner at venture capital firm 01VC in Shanghai, told Rest of World that compared to apps with strong social functions like TikTok, utility apps such as ShareIt tend to struggle more with long-term revenue growth.

In recent years, ShareIt has tried to retain users by diversifying its business model. It has added a video player, displays ads for other platforms, and has launched ShopIt — an e-commerce hub that allows users to compare deals and prices on other shopping apps. Today, according to its global vice president Karam Malhotra, ShareIt generates revenue mostly through advertising and marketing partnerships with companies like Egyptian lending app Money Fellows and Pakistani mobile payment platform Easypaisa.

A collage of three screenshots of the SHAREit application.

But users have been growing impatient with ShareIt’s in-app adverts. “The ads on ShareIt really bother me,” Amaan Sandhu, an Islamabad-based ShareIt user, told Rest of World, suggesting the ads were salacious. “Sometimes, when my family is nearby, these ads with pictures would pop up, and they can’t tell if it’s an ad or if it’s something a friend has sent. That’s very uncomfortable.”

As internet coverage has improved in different regions, and data costs have gone down, some users have abandoned ShareIt altogether in favor of Apple’s AirDrop, Google’s Nearby Share, Telegram, or WhatsApp. David Calilung, an iPhone user in the Philippines’ Makati city, told Rest of World he once used the app to share photos with friends on an island without internet connection, but people around him were increasingly using AirDrop.

Sandhu, 24, has been using ShareIt since he was in high school, but lately, with better Wi-Fi connection, he only ever uses it to transfer large movie files to friends. With every click, two or three ads pop up on the app, making it difficult to use, he said. “It’s good for ShareIt’s business, but it’s a problem for users. If a two-minute file transfer takes 10 minutes because of ads, who would use it?”