Building an app for India means building one for the world, says Signal’s Brian Acton

Co-founder of Signal Foundation says its non-profit status protects it from ‘outside interests demanding rapid returns’ and it is ramping up infrastructure.

January 20, 2021 10:09 pm | Updated May 06, 2021 05:38 pm IST - Chennai

Brian Acton

Brian Acton

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Facebook-owned WhatsApp recently updated its privacy policy , triggering a mass digital migration of users from the messaging platform to those of its rivals. The switch gained momentum after the world’s richest man Elon Musk urged his followers on Twitter to install the Signal app.

Since then, millions of users have downloaded Signal to connect with their friends and family. The exodus initially strained telecom service providers’ infrastructure, causing delays in the user sign-up process.

The unforeseen user traffic did not deter Signal’s effort to ramp up infrastructure and build capabilities to handle sustained growth in user traffic to its platform.

Signal’s unprecedented growth helped it top charts on Apple’s App Store in over 70 countries and in Google’s Play Store in more than 50 countries, Signal Foundation’s co-founder Brian Acton said in an email interview to The Hindu

The Signal app was launched by Moxie Marlinspike in 2013. Mr. Marlinspike and Mr. Acton co-founded the Signal Foundation five years later in response to the continued global need for data protection and privacy, setting out to pioneer a new model of a technology non-profit, focused on privacy and data protection for its users.

Also Read | How different is Signal from WhatsApp?

The foundation is an independent non-profit body, and is not tied to any major technology firm. Product development on the platform is supported by grants and donations, akin to the way Wikipedia is run.

“Our non-profit status protects Signal from outside interests demanding rapid returns,” Mr. Acton said.

He is also the co-founder of WhatsApp but he left the platform after it was sold to Facebook in 2014.

Handling outages

A week after WhatsApp’s policy update, on January 13, the Signal app was downloaded by 17.8 million users over the week, a 62-fold rise from the week prior, Reuters reported. About 810,000 users globally installed the app in a single day on January 10. While Signal installs surged, WhatsApp’s daily downloads number slowed significantly.

Signal is scaling up its infrastructure to handle user traffic and to ensure it has enough capacity online. “We are burning the midnight oil,” Mr. Acton said.

Signal app users experienced several outages last week after it faced technical difficulties as it dealt with the flood of new users. Services were restored on Saturday.

“There are still going to be some challenging moments when you grow so suddenly like we did, but we are moving as fast as possible through it all,” Mr. Acton added.

While Signal witnessed an exponential growth in usage and adoption in 2019 — much of it fuelled by increased reliance on digital communication — it is different this time.

Also Read | Signal to ramp up hiring after WhatsApp controversy drives download surge

“All that pales in comparison to what is happening right now though, this movement for privacy is larger than anything I’ve seen, even during my time at WhatsApp,” Mr. Acton noted.

The foundation aims to be “financially self-sustaining” and act in public interest, and make a “meaningful contribution to society by building sustainable technology that respects people and does not rely on the commoditisation of personal data”, he added.

India's moment

India continues to dominate Signal’s growth numbers, helping it sustain its top position in the free apps category in Apple’s App Store. It is also the most popular app in India currently. “We believe that building our app for a country as diverse as India will have automatically built it for the world,” Mr. Acton said.

He also pointed out that Signal app installs in India started even before the WhatsApp update.

“To be honest, we always knew that India was going to be a very big place for Signal as we had seen massive adoption over the summer,” he said. Prominent personalities in India, including Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra, supported the app via Twitter.

Mr. Acton said Indian users can expect several features soon, including wallpapers, and animated stickers, the most requested feature in the country, Mr. Acton said.

Signal will also support other uncommon features like disappearing messages, a “note to self” feature, and emoji reactions to messages. The app will also support more regional languages, including Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Punjabi.

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