In the bylanes of Hazaratganj, in Uttar Pradesh’s capital of Lucknow, mobile phone retailer Ganpati Mobile is doing brisk business. Each day, around 300-400 customers walk into its 2,200 square foot shop. But they aren’t all there to purchase cell phones. The store is also where content—from movies to songs and even apps—is exchanged. And the shop owners are the digital gatekeepers.

Once a purchase is made, store manager Sunil Yadav first installs Chinese peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing app SHAREit on users’ phones. Using this app, Yadav ships essential apps onto users’ phones. “In three minutes flat I can send WhatsApp, Facebook, Flipkart, Truecaller, Paytm, Google Tez,” says Yadav. Internet isn’t required for this, a type of WiFi hotspot is all it takes.

Yadav says that 80% of the people who walk into his store are aware of the app already, and for the 20% who are not, Yadav tells them about it since it makes his life easier.

This begins to explain SHAREit’s popularity in the country. The app claims to have 400 million Indian users, with about 200 million monthly active users (MAUs)—nearly as many as the ubiquitous messaging app, WhatsApp. According to app analytics firm App Annie, SHAREit was the sixth most-downloaded app in India in 2017.

Despite this, it has largely stayed out of the urban consciousness.

A file transfer app owned by the Lenovo Group, SHAREit broke out of the hardware Chinese multinational in 2015. This was when it reached Indian shores, a time when data was costly and the idea of sideloading was a panacea for India’s content-hungry and data-starved masses. Back then, shops like Yadav’s plied people with content through the medium of memory cards. Google’s mobile operating system Android allowed this kind of sideloading, unlike Apple’s iOS.

Memory cards, though, were cumbersome. Soon, Beijing-based SHAREit took over, spreading like wildfire. Its adopters were mostly Android users (though it’s also available on iOS and Windows) who owned cheap smartphones and wanted content. Three factors—costly data, no access to the Google Play Store, and poor network connectivity—ensured that people were soon hooked to the app.

But the undiminishing popularity of SHAREit came at a cost for Google. It chipped away at the idea of the Google Play Store as the sole destination for Android app downloads and created a blind spot in Android’s app ecosystem. Now, the search giant, which has thus far remained on the sidelines of sideloading, wants a piece of the action.

Sideloading and sidestepping

It began with the announcement of an engineering tweak. In June, Google said that all apps on the Play Store will carry a file signature—a marker of sorts for Google to identify Play Store apps.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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