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Why India's Mobile Seva app store still languishes a decade after its launch

Why India's Mobile Seva app store still languishes a decade after its launch
18 Apr, 2022
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Despite being in existence of nearly a decade since December 2013, the Indian government’s ‘aatmanirbhar’ app store--the Mobile Seva--has been unable to leverage the growth of India’s app ecosystem that continues to show rapid growth on the back of mobile payments, shopping and gaming apps.

The Mobile Seva app store was originally built by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) in 2011, and was restricted to hosting government apps. In March 2021, the erstwhile union minister for Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, made a renewed push for Mobile Seva and opened the store for private apps too.

In a written response to the Lok Sabha at the time, Prasad said there were over 965 apps from various public services domains on Mobile Seva. “While the government encourages private players to host apps, it is equally keen to develop and encourage its own mobile app store,” he had said. 

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As on April 15, the store has a total of only 1,058 apps, many of which are government ones. Among the prominent private apps on the platform are digital payments platform Paytm, and vernacular social media app, Koo. The website also claims that apps have been downloaded from it only 88.5 million times.

In comparison, though, mobile phone users in India downloaded over 27 billion apps from Google and Apple’s stores in 2021, according to January 2022 data from mobile analytics firm data.ai (formerly App Annie).

Indians were ranked the second highest downloaders of apps, accounting for 11.6% of all app downloads in the world, in the 'State of Mobile 2021' report by mobile analytics firm data.ai (formerly App Annie). Analysts say there are many reasons why the government has not been able to gain traction for its app store, primary among these being a lack of partnerships with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the smartphone space coupled with inadequate promotion and poorly-designed basic user interfaces. They add that the limited adoption clearly reflects that despite it being floated as India’s indigenous app store, private companies haven’t found it to be worth investing in.

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“The government had allowed private apps on this store last year, and Paytm and Koo had volunteered to put their apps on this platform. Since then, there have been no promotions to boost the store, and nor have there been OEM tie-ups to put Mobile Seva as a default app store on phones,” tech policy analyst Prasanto K. Roy. He added that if the union government decides to make a serious push for Mobile Seva’s adoption, they would be approaching smartphone brands in the Make in India bandwagon, such as Xiaomi – which could help push its adoption.

Of the two noteworthy private apps on Mobile Seva, Koo has been on the store since January 2022. Its adoption, however, has been largely limited, according to Mayank Bidawatka, co-founder of the app. “The adoption is still small on the platform, and we’ve so far seen about a thousand downloads from it,” he added.

As a result of its limited level of adoption, Koo has not made a concerted push to offer Mobile Seva as a way to download its app. Bidawatka added that the Google Play Store remains the de facto choice for most of its downloads, and while the government’s platform does offer benefits like no deductions from in-app payments earned, such factors make no difference for a service like Koo, which does not offer in-app products for its users.

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He also said that maintaining the Koo app on an additional platform requires the company to focus separately on delivering all updates that it does to its Android app on the Play Store. “We try to maintain the regularity of updates as far as we can, but it is a tedious process to follow,” Bidawatka said. Since being added to Mobile Seva on January 11, 2022, the Koo app has not received any updates. On the Play Store, the app’s latest update came on April 8.

Sijo Kuruvilla George, executive director of the Alliance of Digital India Foundation (ADIF), said that the organic advantage that Google and Apple already have with their app stores would not be outdone simply by removing in-app payment commissions. “Private apps such as ecommerce services would only want to be present (on an app store) if there is a sizeable user base. The Play Store and App Store already give developers access to massive user bases, and cheaper payment tools isn’t incentive enough,” he said.

He added that software restrictions ensure that alternate stores cannot be used by most, either. “Even on Android, though the ecosystem is more ‘open’ on paper, if the average user tries to install apps from an alternate site, Google will warn them about the app being dangerous, which could put many non-tech savvy users off,” Kuruvilla-George said.

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The lack of a refined user base could also be a deterrent in keeping the adoption of Mobile Seva very limited. On this note, Roy said that government services do not always offer the best user experience, as a result of which organic adoption could be difficult.

“Such growth would only happen if the government issues a binding regulatory mandate, or private startups decide to be highly nationalist and choose to solely migrate to a government platform. That would be difficult for them, since they would then lose customers,” he added.