India is the neglected elephant in TikTok’s room

Reuters MUMBAI | Updated on August 10, 2020 Published on August 10, 2020

TikTok’s salvage value appears to vary from place to place. Microsoft is in talks for the Chinese-owned short-video apps assets in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while social network Twitter is interested only in the US division, Reuters reported on Sunday. India, the TikTok’s biggest market by users, is the neglected elephant in the room.

Microsoft has been showy about its commitment to the emerging market. The $1.6-trillion company’s Hyderabad-born boss, Satya Nadella, beamed in last year to the annual meeting of the $188-billion Mumbai-based Reliance Industries. The two firms announced a 10-year alliance that will see Reliance’s new data centres work with Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, amongst other things. For Twitter, like other foreign technology firms, India is widely estimated to be one of its biggest markets by users. The country accounted for 611 million TikTok downloads, or 30 per cent of the total, according to SensorTower.

Practical issues might be one reason to hold back. Either buyer will have to convince sceptics in Washington that their deal will sever any backdoor links with the People’s Republic, and also make the same case to New Delhi, which slapped a ban on the app in June. In addition, Indian users are less valuable to advertisers than those in wealthier markets, and the need to support a long list of local languages raises operating challenges and costs. There’s the price tag too: the whole of TikTok might be worth over $24 billion, Breakingviews estimates. Any such sum would sorely strain Twitter’s balance sheet.

But there are political reasons to be reticent too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is championing a hazy concept of a self-reliant India, much like his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. That could imply future policy support for apps like Chingari, Mitron and Roposo, all of them home-grown TikTok-like alternatives; for ShareChat, which has raised money from Twitter and owns a video-sharing app called Moj; or for Reliance’s JioMeet video conferencing app, which is strikingly similar to Zoom, and free to boot.

India may not fully duplicate China’s template, which helped tech firms like Baidu and Tencent become giants by locking out overseas competition. But foreign buyers have reason to beware.

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Published on August 10, 2020
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