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Around 2007, Mohit Saxena, Amit Gupta, Abhay Singhal and Naveen Tewari wanted to leverage the cheap massification of the internet. They started an SMS-based search engine service called ‘mKhoj’ in Bengaluru. By 2008, the company had rebranded itself as ‘inMobi’ and made a sharp pivot towards mobile advertising. The foresight that the founders had to spot a gap for them to make money was prophetic.
Back then, mobile phones were a rare spotting and the Apple and iOS platforms were far from being materialised. Mobile advertising was such a novel undertaking that there were only two serious competitors in the market even in the US—Google and AdMob (which was eventually acquired by Google in 2009). Meanwhile, inMobi was building momentum in foreign markets like South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, inMobi was minted as India’s first unicorn startup.
Racing to unicorn status
In 2019, a subsidiary emerged from inMobi called ‘Glance’. An AI-based software company, Glance was a platform that delivered personalised content to users in multiple languages like English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Bahasa. In September that year, it bought short-video social media platform, ‘Roposo.’The startup then raised a total of USD 145 million from Mithril Capital, a venture capital firm co-founded by Peter Thiel of PayPal fame, Ajay Royan, and Google in December 2020.
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It was luckily a well-timed moment. TikTok had been banned from the Indian market in June 2019—splitting the playing field wide open for short video content platforms. Within a span of 20 months, Glance had become one of the fastest startups to achieve unicorn status.
In February 2022, the Mukesh Ambani-led ‘Jio Platforms’, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries announced that it was investing USD 200 million in Glance, in a Series D funding round. According to a report by Counterpoint Research’s Quarterly Mobile Application Tracker released in 2021, Glance had crossed 150 million daily active users in India by the second-half of 2021—an 8% increase from the past year—and is reportedly developing a growing appetite in more ways than one. Tewari has bought a gaming platform Gambit Sports Pvt. Ltd. to help build NFT-based live gaming experiences for its lock screens. Glance has also started hiring in the US, pre-empting its launch there in the next quarter.
Big market for cheaper phones
A company that was unheard of a couple of years back was suddenly on every Android phone’s lock screen and counted the who’s who from Silicon Valley on its investor rolodex. How had it managed this meteoric rise?
First off, Glance isn’t an app, it is a pre-installed feature in Android phones made by brands like Samsung, Xiaomi, Vivo and Gionee. A report by Counterpoint Research stated that around 70% of all newly-launched smartphones in India, under the sub-USD 250 segment have Glance pre-installed.
Rohan Choudhary, co-founder and VP of Glance Feed says that the primary idea behind the platform was to add customer value. “For some reason, news apps haven’t been able to create habits for users. Glance fills that space for them with snippets of your favourite show or a news bulletin. Users can fiddle with apps like Wordle for a few minutes several times a day without downloading it,” he explained.
According to the report, 45% of the platform’s traffic comes from users with phones priced between the range of USD 150 and 250, while 12% users are from phones below the USD 100 price point. India is chiefly (80%) a market for smartphones priced below the USD 250 range, while 79% of Glance users in India use smartphones priced below the USD 250. Smartphone users with phones within the price range between USD 100 and 150 and above USD 250 comprise 21% respectively of the company’s user base.
The massive demand for affordable smartphones in India is possibly what caught Jio’s eye. The company has announced the launch of its new smartphone in India, the ‘JioPhone’—in collaboration with Google. To be released at an expected price of INR 3499, the smartphone will be the cheapest available in the global market.
Market disruptor but at high cost
As tough as the online content business is, investment has poured in from prominent resources because of inMobi’s precocious moves. In the world of ad space where big tech organisations like Facebook and Google pretty much monopolise, InMobi has proven to be a strategic disruptor. By way of planned acquisitions and partnerships, it has managed to carve a niche for itself among behemoths. Especially in markets like China, where it has edged out local competition aided by the absence of Google and Facebook.
Now, Glance is planning to launch a new Live feature on its lock screens which senior executives believe will be the “next big frontier for content consumption on the internet.” According to Choudhary, the live streaming feature is a “perfect fit” for the lock screen. “Our product has evolved over time and live streaming is apt for Gen Z users,” he said.
However, all this market domination has come at a hidden cost. An early FTC case from 2016 against InMobi—that was eventually settled—showed that inMobi had sidestepped consumer choice. Despite a user denying access to the location API, inMobi had gone on to share the user’s location details, in turn showing geo-targeted ads. The company was reportedly collecting information from the WiFi that the device was connected to or that was in close proximity to the user and utilising this to determine their location.
With several users calling the platform “annoying, intrusive and battery-draining,” there are online discussion threads dedicated to learning how to disable it.
Choudhary refutes this. “It was essential for our team to give users the choice to opt out of the service if they want. They can disable the platform from within Glance itself and even choose the categories they want to shut out,” he pointed out. “Consumers have to feel like they have control over the service. The platform uses social personalisation. Because Glance is a lock screen content service, we had to be extra cautious that the content was not startling,” he added.
Because of its pre-installed feature, there are questions around how fair the daily active user metric is to gauge the platform’s success. One Android user commented on a twitter thread discussion around Glance saying, “A pre-loaded spamware on a phone’s lock screen should not be compared to intentionally used apps,” while another noted that Glance users may not even be aware that they were using Glance.
Tewari and co. clearly have big ambitions with InMobi and Glance but with how far have they come in terms of market capture, how far have they really come with brand recall and user engagement? To this Choudhary responded by saying, “We admit that 40% of the user base may not like us, and that’s alright. From our retention rate, it is clear that consumers have chosen to keep us. If you like us you can engage, if you don’t, please go ahead and use the phone.”