For years, WhatsApp has been India’s de-facto messaging app, but its domination might be facing its biggest challenge yet.
Signal has become India’s top free app on the App store. More than 100,000 users installed Signal across the app stores of Apple and Google in the last two days, a report from Sensor Tower said. New installs of WhatsApp fell 11% in the first seven days of 2021 compared with the prior week, but WhatsApp wouldn’t be panicking just yet — that still amounted to an estimated 10.5 million downloads globally.
Signal, though, has momentum behind it, after WhatsApp’s new privacy terms left users spooked, and searching for alternatives. Last week, WhatsApp had begun showing a message to its users, asking them to agree to its new terms by 8th February. The message gave no choice to users who didn’t want to agree to WhatsApp’s new terms — users could either accept the update, or stop using the app.
It didn’t matter that the new terms weren’t particularly different from how things were before — WhatsApp was going to share business chats data with its parent company Facebook, but the nature of the message, and the accompanying deadline, made many scramble for alternatives.
Signal appeared as a viable competitor when it was endorsed by none other than Elon Musk himself. “Use Signal,” he laconically tweeted, and led to Signal’s OTP system crashing as thousands signed up.
The appeal of Signal is understandable. Unlike WhatsApp, its code is open source. It also helps that the app is run by a non profit foundation that seeks grants donations from users, instead of being run by a megacorporation like Facebook. And Signal claims to provide greater privacy for its users — its chats and backups are fully end-to-end encrypted, unlike WhatsApp.
There’s also a connect between Signal and WhatsApp — they share the same founder. Brian Acton, who’d originally founded WhatsApp along with Jan Koum, has put in $50 million into Signal. Acton and Koum had hit paydirt when Facebook had acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, but the duo had a fractious relationship with Facebook, and frequently clashed with Mark Zuckerberg over sharing of WhatsApp’s data, and Facebook’s demands to show ads on WhatsApp. In 2017, Acton and Koum had quit Facebook. Acton had made his feelings for his former employer made known in a tweet following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which he’d urged people to “Delete Facebook.” He had even been remorseful, later saying that he’d sold his users’ privacy for a “larger benefit.”
Things seem to have come a full circle. After the original founders left, Facebook does appear to be making moves to access WhatsApp’s data and show ads. This has led to people looking for alternatives, and Acton had done well to fund and have a competitor ready that can take advantage. Interestingly, Signal is still taking potshots at Facebook. “Facebook is probably more comfortable selling ads than buying them, but they’ll do what they have to do in order to be the top result when some people search for ‘Signal’ in the App Store,” it tweeted, along with a picture of a Facebook Messenger ad showing up when people searched for Signal. “P.S. There will never be ads in Signal, because your data belongs in your hands not ours,” it rubbed it in.
It’s still early days, but it would appear that Facebook might be dealing with the strongest challenge to WhatsApp in years.