The four-year-old Indian startup GupShup is growing up. The service, built for India's vast market of basic mobile phone users, has the social network elements of Twitter and Facebook, but is tricked out for Indian phones, which means, in part, ditching data plans. Users take to SMS to broadcast public messages or send private updates to groups of friends.
GupShup, which recently changed its name from "SMS GupShup," is now processing messages at the rate of 3 billion per month (up from 2 billion last year), and has grown to 65 million users. As of February, some 553 brands use the service as a way to reach customers. The number of mobile users is up 17% over last year, now standing at 65 million. But that's just scratching the surface. With 911 million total mobile subscribers in the country, GupShup's got plenty of ground left to cover.
But to tackle India's changing mobile phone demographic that's veering slowly but surely toward a more smartphone-friendly public, GupShup is launching a hybrid service that will connect the hundreds of millions of basic "dumb phone" users with new smartphone adopters of every flavor.
Later this year, GupShup plans to launch apps for Android and iOS, with apps for other operating systems to follow. Their grand plan is to expand their reach beyond India, to other "hybrid" markets in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—markets seeing a small but growing smartphone base capping off a vast network of basic cellular users.
"India's catching up with the smartphone revolution with a bit of a lag," Beerud Sheth, CEO of GupShup tells Fast Company. "If we [launched] a year ago it would have been too early."
By entering the app space, GupShup will challenge other group messaging services like WhatsApp. (WhatsApp doesn't often share numbers, but at last count, at the Mobile World Congress, CEO Jan Koum revealed that WhatsApp was processing about 2 billion messages per day.)
But Sheth insists that GupShup isn't "defining themselves in terms of the competition."
"You can talk to 1% of the world that has WhatsApp, but how do you reach the rest of the 99%?" Marrying SMS and data, he says, means people can communicate on newer devices, and between new and old devices. "Why divide people through technology when you can unite?" Sheth says.
Given India's sharply divided mobile demographic, the GupShup SMS-app approach makes sense. Smartphone adoption is picking up pace, yes, but price continues to be a major point of friction in India. A large chunk of India's mobile market is prepaid, smartphones aren't subsidized by carriers, and data plans continue to be expensive (though prices are beginning to fall). All this makes devices like the iPhone unaffordable to most Indians, and the road ahead for smartphone adoption a slow, steep climb. "The digital divide will remain," Sheth says, of the smartphone/dumbphone split. But, "you'll see it becoming more of a gray area than a sharp divide."
And even within the smartphone landscape, GupShup's strategy is dissimilar to many app makers based in the U.S. or Europe. "In the U.S. it's safe for any developer to focus on iOS or Android," Sheth says, but in India, that degree of selectivity just doesn't cut it. Which is why when GupShup thought it was time they made an app, they thought big. Their first apps will launch for iOS and Android, with apps for Symbian, BlackBerry, and several other operating systems to follow.
[Image: Flickr user nate steiner]