Signal: The Coup D’etat

Signal became one of the most downloaded apps on Google Play Store globally as of 11th January, 2021 and ranked third with at least 10 million installations, overthrowing WhatsApp, that failed to feature even among the top ten apps on the Play store.

Founded in 2014 by Moxie Marlinspike, Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app that is out on the mission of putting users over profit. In 2018 it was funded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who supercharged the app injecting $50 million and turning it into Signal Technology Foundation, as it is known today. The American computer programmer and Internet entrepreneur who has previously created much of a commotion while tweeting “Delete Facebook”, had later almost doubled the loan extended to the organisation due to be repaid on February 28, 2068 at 0% interest clearly stating his outright battle for privacy of user data.

Moving down the timeline, it is critical to understand the rise of Signal and the impetus that Acton’s moral compass and WhatsApp’s new take it or leave privacy policy has had on the same. Not to mention the ready endorsement the app has found by various public figures, critics and business tycoons.

The story somewhat started in the November of 2009 when Brian Acton joined now Ukrainian-American billionaire Jan Koum as co-founder at WhatsApp with 20% skin in the game. The former employees of Yahoo! envisioned a new type of messaging app that would “show statuses next to individual names of the people”. Working on the idea, by the time WhatsApp 2.0 was released, the number of active users had surged to around 250,000. Seeing the potential that the app possessed, WhatsApp was subject to multiple acquisition offers from Google in 2010 which were politely declined by the company. Then in 2012 Mark Zuckerberg, who had first reached out to Koum over email, expressed his growing interest in WhatsApp which only strengthened in 2014 pertaining to two major reasons. One, sensing Google’s interest Facebook did not wish to fear losing the messenger to a competitor and second, a document analysing WhatsApp’s valuation, written by Morgan Stanley’s Michael Grimes, the banker behind Facebook’s infamous IPO, acted as a catalyst in its bid to acquire the app.

Facebook later proceeded to make an offer of $22 billion to buy WhatsApp, making it the biggest internet deal of the decade. By 2017 Facebook was finding ways of monetizing WhatsApp by Targeted advertising which was against Acton’s motto of “No Ads, No Games, No Gimmicks”. Acton tried pushing the alternative of metered-user model but was shot down by Facebook officials. Finally pertaining to these differences the entrepreneur announced his departure from Facebook in September 2017 and in attempting to fulfil his privacy-first and trouble free messaging vision of WhatsApp he ultimately invested in Signal.

Despite Signal having been in the market before, the app has been the star highlight of January, 2021. Why? With WhatsApp having revealed to be in the same bed as Facebook, many are reconsidering their choices when it comes to simple texting. The “Zuckerberg Empire” had early in the month more or less forced users to either part with WhatsApp or agree to a seemingly intrusive data usage policy. Talking about the present situation Acton had interview with CNBC-TV18 said, “I think that what’s quite interesting is this new privacy policy in terms of service, it’s actually kind of complicated. And to really understand it, you have to sort of read it quite carefully, so that you can understand that Facebook’s trying to thread a very specific needle around privacy and monetization. That’s probably what I don’t like the most, it’s a very slippery slope and people often times can misstep and do it wrong.(…)  When, when you have these relationships with companies where they may have access to your data, they can surprise you in ways that you really don’t expect. Sometimes you are happy and you are delighted and sometimes it just feels downright creepy. Personally, I don’t think that that’s how I would like to operate my business. I would like to operate with more straightforward candor and transparency.”

When asked about Signal, he had added further, “In the Signal scenario, we don’t have those problems. With Signal people just download the app, the privacy policy is very understandable and it’s very straightforward. I mean, you don’t have to worry; you don’t have to think twice about ‘how is my data being used?(…)With Signal, there’s no question as to how your data is being used. You own your data, we don’t have access to it, it’s simple.”

Signal’s 18-fold downloads overnight can also be attributed to the direct publicity received by businessmen such as Elon Musk, who implicitly mocked WhatsApp in his tweet “Use Signal”, stating his pick for the crown. The Indian business tycoon, Anand Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra Group also joined the league by tweeting to his 8.3 million followers, “Have installed Signal messaging. Maybe soon there will be a #signalwonderbox,”

A bright future in sight, Acton has been grateful to the positive feedback the app has been receiving and in keeping India’s markets as his topmost priority he currently intends to “…Develop a rock-solid flagship product by incorporating the user’s feedback; a model running on donations.”

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