A video conferencing solution challenge launched by the ministry of electronics and information technology, aimed at finding an Indian alternative to Zoom, has thrown up a surprise – the top five companies to make it to the ministry’s list are all start-ups.
The top three, which will be provided ₹20 lakh each as support from the government to develop an indigenous video conferencing application, are PeopleLink Unified Communications Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad; Sarv Webs Pvt Ltd, Jaipur; and Techgentsia Software Technologies Private Ltd, Alappuhza.
The other two companies, Instrive Softlabs Private Ltd, Chennai; and Soulpage IT Solutions Private Ltd, Hyderabad, will be given ₹15 lakh each to develop the final product.
Officials in the information and technology (IT) ministry said on condition of anonymity that over 2,000 applications had come in by potential participants in the video conferencing app challenge, which was launched on April 13. The challenge came in the backdrop of the nationwide lockdown that led to the need for video conferencing apps to support the country’s shift to working from home and comply with social distancing norms.
Initially, American-origin application Zoom gained wide popularity, with even certain ministries and a number of officials taking to it to communicate. Security concerns surrounding Zoom led the central government to ask all ministries and departments to refrain from using the app and shift to the National Informatics Centre’s Vidyo application instead. Vidyo too is an American-origin company, but is vetted by the National Informatics Centre to ensure data privacy.
After a series of presentations, the five start-ups were shortlisted. IT ministry officials told HT that tech giants such HCL Technologies Ltd and Zoho Corporation Private Ltd had also applied, but could not make it to the top five. Zoho, however, has been awarded a certificate of appreciation by the ministry.
“PeopleLink is a slightly older company,” an IT ministry official said. “But Sarv and Techgentsia are nascent start-ups.”
The official added that the latter two have devised “homegrown” solutions, from coding to ensuring that all information is encrypted in a secure fashion. “Sarv, for example, did their entire presentation in Hindi,” the official said.
“Most tech solutions are built on Jitsi (an open source video conferencing application for web and mobile),” the official added. “That is the easy thing to do. However, the top three have unique design and were created independent of Jitsi. The entire architecture of the app is specialised. ”
The official added that final versions of the solutions are likely to be rolled out by the end of the month.
Ramesh Chaudhary, CEO of Sarv that has developed SARV wave, launched his company in 2011. “The product is completely indigenous,” said Chaudhary. “No data will travel out of India and it has been certified by CERT.”
Chaudhary added that the solution is a one-click product that does not require a user to download the app. “You can view up to50 people in one screen and will especially be able to cater to educational institutions. Its end-to-end encryption matches the standards of the European Union.”
According to Techgentsia CEO Joy Sebastian, the beta version of the product has already been vetted by the IT ministry. “Ours is a server-site mixing solution,” said Sebastian. “The main aim was to enable the government to save money by reducing reliance on legacy video conferencing applications.”
Techgentsia was founded in 2009 and has 50 people working on the project.
“The servers will be in the government’s custody; so that ensures data security,” said Sebastian. “Nothing will be posted on a public cloud.”
According to the essential and desirable features of the applications issued by the ministry and accessed by HT, the apps are required to provide end-to-end encryption for audio, video, data and files. They also have to store the data on the cloud for at least a month and provide multiple factor authentications for a user. Among desirable features were a CERT-In security audit and data privacy.
According to Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher working on technology, data and governance, the move to choose start-ups is a “logical one.”
“If the ministry had picked an HCL or a Zoho, it would have helped those companies garner profits,” Kodali said. “However, by picking newer companies, it will help the government retain its money and create more jobs in the sector.”
Kodali added that the privacy concerns will still remain as any product takes “time to stabilise.” “Zoom marketed itself as end-to-end encrypted, but it turned out otherwise,” Kodali said. “Even though CERT may have done an audit, they still have to prove it. It’s an evolution cycle. Moreover, the question remains whether compliance with local laws will ensure that these companies have to disallow what the government doesn’t want to grant access to, say an NGO holding a talk.”