Big Idea

InMobi’s Glance knows you and how. Well, ask your smartphone

InMobi’s AI-powered platform can hit paydirt, but there could be potential threat to privacy, allege analysts

Naveen Tewari, Founder and CEO, InMobi

“When I press ‘buy,’ put the item in my hand… now.” In his recent Netflix special, Asian-American comedian Ronny Chieng jokes about how life has become so easy. “Let’s get Prime before. Send it to me before I want it. Its 2019, I have to make a decision? Use artificial intelligence to substitute my own intelligence,” he rants sarcastically, and he is right. 

 

With our lives ‘uploaded’ on the internet for the whole world to see, companies and advertisers are trying their best to understand you the consumer — what makes you click on a link, what makes you laugh, what makes you angry, which dress or shirt will you like the most — the list goes on. Google and Amazon already show you results according to your user history. Facebook knows where to place that headphones ad on your newsfeed. Instagram’s promoted post in the middle of all the food posts has just read your mind about that cookbook you were looking for, two days ago. But one place they all overlooked on your smartphone was the lock screen, or the minus-one screen. Enter InMobi’s Glance. 

 

Cast a glance
It is estimated that a person unlocks her phone at least 150-200 times a day. Each time she picks it up, she sees the time, the date and a wallpaper — sometimes default, sometimes chosen after careful consideration, or sometimes a slideshow of the photos in her gallery. Plus, she will get to see the numerous notifications from all kinds of social media platforms, emails, missed calls or news alerts. That hasn’t changed in the past decade even though manufacturers went all out to introduce features such as pop-out cameras and foldable screens! But InMobi, an ad-tech unicorn believed the lock screen was important real estate and Glance was born. Launched commercially in 2018, the app comes in-built in Samsung, Xiaomi, Vivo and Gionee handsets, like say a Google search bar in any Android phone. The first three alone have nearly 40% global market share, according to Counterpoint Research and nearly 70% in India alone. It’s no wonder then that within two years, Glance has become India’s largest home-grown internet platform. Besides its home country, the company has entered South-East Asian markets such as Indonesia and Singapore and is planning to enter Malaysia, Thailand, and Philippines. It already boasts of 100 million daily users who spend an average of 25 minutes on it each day. 

 

The concept is simple. Glance, being a pre-installed app, is integrated into the operating system of smartphones. When you are setting up your brand new phone from one of those manufacturers, one of the permissions is to allow Glance, the lock screen app. If you accept it, Glance will start studying your usage and every time you lift your phone to unlock it, you see content curated just for you. Each time you swipe right or up to see more details of that content (could be an article about Coldplay’s next live stream because you selected ‘Music’ as one of your areas of interest), it registers your action to further improve on the kind of content you would like. Eventually, you may not even have to browse through those 50 apps you installed to stay up-to-date on news or trends or discovering your next kitchen adventure. “We are trying to make life easier for the consumer by reducing the cognitive load of surfing every app,” says Naveen Tewari, founder and CEO, InMobi. To do that, they have partnered with more than 1,000 publishers and brands such as Hindustan Times, AajTak, The Hindu, Rajasthan Patrika, Dainik Jagran, Zee5 and Hungama. 

 

That’s one of the key things the company got right. It does not have to spend money on creating content because of these partners, not competitors — who get footfall in return for content shared with Glance. Thus, it can focus on curation. Instead of the usual RSS-feed format, the app makes every ‘glance’ worth it with a beautiful backdrop and neat layout. They also have every piece of content checked by a person, not a bot. “We reduce our content errors to zero,” states Tewari.

However, Laura Petrone, senior analyst at GlobalData states grabbing users’ attention means pushing out different types of content in high volume, sometimes at the cost of quality. “The amount of data involved makes impossible for human moderators to check all the content,” she says. At present, of the 300 employees at Glance, 150 are responsible for content moderation. On the other hand, Facebook employs 15,000 moderators in the US for 1.8 billion daily active users, and yet runs into trouble for content curation. 

For OEMs, any superior customer experience, like well-collated content, translates into more revenue. “Today, the average shelf life of a smartphone is two years. Even if Glance has a two-year agreement with OEMs, it will be a win-win for both parties. With this, OEMs can even pass some of the benefits to the end consumer in the form of direct or in-direct discounting,”says Tarun Pathak, associate director, Counterpoint Research. 

Next, Glance also factored in the rise in regional content, since English-speaking consumers just make up 9-10% of total internet users in India. That’s one of the reasons Peter Thiel co-founded Mithril Capital invested $45 million in Glance (See: Making of a unicorn). Ajay Royan, co-founder and managing general partner, Mithril Capital, says that the next three billion internet users will be an incredibly diverse group not centered in the metros. And they will expect the full richness of this internet experience to be delivered in their own language. Glance has thus been made available in multiple languages, including English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Bahasa Indonesia. “This type of user-centric platform is the future,” says Royan. 

He adds that as the default lock screen content on over 80% of new smartphones sold in India and over 60% of those sold in SE Asia, “Glance has the twin advantage of novelty and incumbency, as well as grounding in local cultures and language”. Tewari is confident that even if other players launch their lock screen apps, they will continue to have the upper hand due to many years of product-market-fit work. “Our exclusive partnerships with smartphone makers ensure that we are protected against replication,” he adds. 

Currently, 95% of InMobi’s FY19 revenue of Rs.3.84 billion comes from their core business of mobile advertising (See: Bumpy ride). The remaining comes from Glance and TruFactor, a data platform launched in 2019 that focuses on the US market. Tewari explains that Glance will always remain a free service for users, but they will start monetising the app through content that might prompt someone to buy a particular product or service. In a few years, he expects InMobi revenue share to go down to 40-50%, with TruFactor at 15-20% and Glance at 30%.

Glance’s contribution will also come from Glance TV and Glance Gaming. The former has two-minute video stories and the latter, quick games such as racing, shooting, trivia, Ludo, chess and quizzes. To strengthen its content game, the company acquired short-video platform Roposo for an undisclosed amount in November 2019. From fashion to food and technology to art, there are close to 33 different ‘channels’ available in over ten regional languages, on this platform. 

“We focus on building strong communities who generate and consume content within each category,” boasts Mayank Bhangadia, co-founder Roposo. It has a userbase of 50 million who spend 30 minutes on the platform daily. The company adds that about 150,000 users create 500,000 videos each day. “By integrating with Glance, we benefit from their strong distribution network and InMobi’s advertising network,” says Bhangadia.

The company is also looking to launch Glance Nearby, which has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It informs you about what is around, like sending an alert when you are passing by a good restaurant,” explains Tewari. For instance, if you are near a café, Glance will send you a notification about what to expect if you venture inside. 

Track and learn
So, will Glance know everything that you are doing? Even that you are walking by a bakery way more than you should? With a deep presence and an eye on everything you do with your smartphone, a discerning consumer may ask the obvious question — how much data am I giving away? “Glance uses AI tools like computer vision and machine learning algorithms for ranking and tagging, suggesting paraphrases, searching for the right image, sequencing different content pieces and for predictive serving and caching of content,” says Petrone. Very much like what some of the biggest internet ecosystems, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, do.

Though their Privacy Policy mentions it, the company maintains that the platform does not ask for name, age or gender. A detailed look into its Privacy Policy will also tell you that it has access to logs, device make, IP address, location, browser and your use of other apps, in accordance with their privacy policies. The document also states that data is collected through cookies (small files placed on your smartphone) and web beacons (to track how the Glance platform is being used and how much engagement each of the content feeds is seeing). However, Glance claims that it does not set any cookies, and also flushes out cookies set by third party websites and browsing always happens in incognito mode. “One must realize that Privacy Policy is a document that is designed for the long term in a broad sense,” the company asserts. 

However, analysts suggest being a pre-installed app allows Glance access to a wide range of data, without having to collect information from users separately. This is because Android allows smartphone manufacturers high degree of flexibility in terms of customising the software to suit their requirements; pre-installed apps which contribute a portion of revenue to the OEMs thus enjoy certain privileges in terms of access to data too. But analysts allege therein stems a serious issue: having privileged access to data, combined with a privacy policy that is all-encompassing and protects against any potential litigation, which users sign on.

Tewari insists that InMobi Group, as a global organisation, takes privacy and data security compliance very seriously. “We are committed to remain privacy first and continue to comply with all applicable privacy laws that apply to Glance or its processing or sharing of user information including obtaining of consent or establishing where we are required to do so,” he states, adding that the user data collected within the platform, stays with the platform. "Glance does not share any personally identifiable information such as phone number or email addresses with other parties or with InMobi," he adds.

The vigour with which personal privacy is defended varies from country to country but in 2016, InMobi was asked by the US FTC to pay $950,000 in civil penalties on charges that it deceptively tracked the locations of hundreds of millions of consumers without their knowledge. In its defence, InMobi attributed the violation to a technical error. The FTC settlement also required InMobi to “institute a comprehensive privacy program that will be independently audited every two years for the next 20 years.”

Tewari asserts that, of course, a user can choose to not activate the app while setting up the phone. But let’s be honest. Most of us don’t even ‘manage cookies’ when it pops up on a big banner on a website. We just ‘accept’. So… reading the terms and conditions? Forget it. Thus, users usually sleepwalk into such agreements, giving every byte of data away for free services. Like we have done with the highly intrusive TikTok.

TikTok had serious privacy and safety issues and has been under investigation in some countries like the UK by the ICO on how it handled young users’ personal data. “Bytedance was fined around £5mn for illegally collecting personal info from children. Following that TikTok committed to protect more user data but it's still under scrutiny. Despite that it's a very popular app and has boomed since the lockdown,” points out Petrone. 

And now, Glance’s acquisition of Roposo takes it into the domain of user generated content and the associated risks. 

To provide customised information for a user, Glance uses AI to understand what kind of content a person consumes on their platform. “This means it gets access to several types of data stored in the device including how many times you pick up your phone. Why do you think Apple hasn’t signed up for this? Apple doesn’t allow a feature like this, which runs in the background,” says an analyst on condition of anonymity. The company maintains that Glance is not available on iOS owing to a number of considerations, including the low market share of Apple in India for Glance to take a business decision on product development.

Analysts also raise concerns about Glance’s reticence to talk. Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder and CEO of Greyhound Research, says, “There’s very little out there in the public domain about Glance. Despite our repeated attempts to connect with them to learn more about the company, we have not found them to be very open,” he says. But the company defends its stance citing “finite bandwidth” and that “it is impossible to respond to every incoming request for interaction.” 

In addition, about a year ago, security researcher Arif Khan wrote on his blog Andmp that ‘Lock Screen Auth Bypass’ is leading to Sensitive Information Disclosure and an Improper Access Control issue in Xiaomi handsets. His views were cited by leading tech media publications. When contacted by Outlook Business, he said that he tested Xiaomi's Redmi 5 (running MIUI 10.1.3.0, Indian version) in 2019, with (pre-installed) Glance wallpaper carousel. “A bug in the lock screen's Glance wallpaper carousel allowed anyone to expose the clipboard data (which includes any sensitive data like credentials copied to clipboard) and partial credentials (email addresses) through Autofill data, even though the device was locked, thereby bypassing lock screen protection,” says Khan. The bug has since been fixed, but it draws attention to the fact that the platform is subject to certain vulnerabilities and privacy concerns. 

It is still early days for Glance and its numerous offerings, but the founders and investors are evidently buoyed by its growth potential. Tewari says that usually, global platforms come in and achieve scale in India. “But Glance is a made in India platform and is going global.”

But what about the chicken-and-egg question? Which one comes first, privacy or personalisation? The company says, “Glance respects the privacy of users while delivering personalisation.” Now, ask your smartphone.

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