How Indian Users Trying To Use WhatsApp On Their Jio Phones Crashed A Small US-Based Startup

A tremendous number of Indians have Jio feature phones. A tremendous number of Indians use WhatsApp. And when these users try to figure out a workaround to use WhatsApp on their Jio phones, it can cause ripples across the internet.

Browserling, a US-based startup that offers browser testing services, fell smack in the middle of a horde of Indian users trying to get WhatsApp to work on their Rs. 1499 Jio phones. Jio doesn’t yet support WhatsApp on its cheapest phones, but someone found a workaround — by opening web.whatsapp.com through Browserling, users could use WhatsApp on their Jio phones.

“I couldn’t understand what was happening.  I thought it was a DDOS attack,” said Peter Krumins, the co-founder of Browserling in a blogpost, after it began getting thousands of new users from India. “I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why was everyone trying to go to WhatsApp inside Browserling?”

What had happened was that someone had created a video demonstrating how WhatsApp could be used within Jio phones through Browserling. The video had promptly gone viral, and spawned many clones, and even blogposts. The video currently has 1.7 million views, and as a result, millions of Indian began hitting Browserling’s servers.

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Krumins didn’t know what to do with the traffic — Browserling is a paid service, but it was being throttled by eager Jio users. “I couldn’t handle tens of thousands of free sessions and it just kept increasing,” he says. He first tried blocking all Jio phones, but users merely kept refreshing their phones, and it didn’t help. He then took an even more drastic step — realizing most of the traffic was from India, he blocked half of all Indian IPs.

But Jio users weren’t going to be so easily deterred — they discovered his personal Facebook profile, and began messaging him, asking him to let them use WhatsApp on Browserling. 

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“Suddenly someone messaged me and said why don’t I let him use WhatsApp. Then 100 users started messaging me. Then 1000s. My Facebook was blowing up,” he says. 

It was then that Browserling thought it could monetize this interest. ” A few more days went by and and then it suddenly struck me! Why am I blocking these users?! This is the biggest opportunity ever! I can capture tens of millions of users. Everyone in India who uses this phone,” he wrote. He then decided to introduce paid plans to use his service, but the results were predictable — people using $20 phones don’t readily make purchases on the internet. Browserling started off with $1/day plan, but nobody bought. The company brought the price down to $0.5 a day, but still no luck. Even at 10 cents a day, Browserling made no sales.

That’s when Browserling thought it could at least get some publicity out of this interest — it began requiring users to tweet about Browserling before they used the service. Soon, hundreds of tweets promoting Browserling were being posted by Indian users.

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“Turns out Jio Phone users would tweet, follow, like, and do anything I tell them to get access to Browserling. Very interesting,” wrote Krumins. Then Browserling got even more creative — soon it required Jio users to send out tweets trolling their competitors before they could use the service. Browserling Number 1, BrowserStack, number 7, said thousands of Indians on Twitter so that they could use WhatsApp on their phones.

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Things go so out of hand that Twitter thought these tweets were being sent by spam bots, and temporarily disabled all mentions of @browserling. Browserling then moved to Facebook, and immediately got thousands of new followers on their page.

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At long last, Browserling decided it had better seriously start monetizing its Jio users. The company has built a dedicated portal on its site to let users access Whatsapp, and is even trying out paid plans. The prices, this time, are a lot more realistic — they’re trying out rates as low as Rs. 9 for a weekly pass. The company also also tied up with Instamojo for payments in rupees.

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It remains to be seen if Indian Jio users will pay a small American startup actual money to be able to use Whatsapp on their phones, but the little incident with Browserling shows how vast the Indian opportunity is. With millions of Indian people buying smartphones for the first time, they’re coming up with interesting needs and interesting use cases that can often be hard to predict. And while Browserling stumbled its way into getting users to pay for its service, real businesses could well be built serving Indian users who’re just finding their way around the internet.

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