Few products polarise opinion within the tech community like Truecaller does. It may have become the fourth-most popular app in India - behind WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and ShareIt, and ahead of the likes of Facebook - but there's no winning over some members of the Gadgets 360 team, and others, who remain critics over privacy concerns.
But like Salman Khan movies, it seems Truecaller doesn't need the critics' stamp of approval to be a huge hit among the masses. India is, by far, the app's biggest market, and when you look at the average number of unsolicited calls and SMS an average Indian receives every day, it's not too difficult to understand the app’s appeal.
Truecaller started its journey as a caller ID app, and since then, it's grown to filter out spam calls and messages, added a smart dialler to its arsenal, and, with the last major update to its Android app, even bundled a payments layer and a messaging system that the app calls ‘Flash messaging’.
The feature launched with Truecaller 8 for Android in late-March and during a recent visit to New Delhi, Nami Zarringhalam, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Truecaller told Gadgets 360 that the initial response to the service has been "very encouraging". Flash messaging, he revealed, had grown 6x from late-April to mid-June. That growth Nami and Truecaller see the feature as a replacement for certain type of phone calls, instead of a full-fledged messaging service.
"When we started to look at some trends we were seeing in phone calls," Nami explains, "we were seeing that there were immense amount of small phone calls that were about 10-15 seconds, sometimes even less. We started to research the reason behind these calls."
"We found out that a lot of people were calling each other just to ask ‘Where are you?’ ‘Are you coming home for dinner?’ And hangup - very basic things," he adds. "Or in many cases it’s calling and hanging up - a missed call. We are seeing cases where [a missed call] between youngsters means that ‘I miss you’ - those kind of small signals that between you and me mean something, but no one else really knows or understands."
Flash messaging, Nami says, is designed to "have the same urgency as you would have from these phone calls - the same attention grabbing urgency - but with ease of communication where you can express emotions, share location, or whatever information that is important at that point of time. It is not important tomorrow, it’s not important thirty minutes from now, right now I need to know, and right now you are telling me."
If you’ve tried Flash Messaging on Android you can understand where Nami is coming from. The experience of an incoming Truecaller flash message is not too different from receiving a phone call. The alert takes over your entire phone screen, unlike, say, an incoming WhatsApp message, which shows up as a notification and then disappears almost instantly. The alert stays on your screen for 60 seconds before it goes away and becomes a missed flash message notification, while also letting the sender know that the message wasn’t seen right away, an idea that’s central to the kind of communication that flash messaging is intended for, Nami says.
"Based on how the product is built, you are going to be able to expect the answer in a minute... the other side has a minute to answer, after which maybe the moment that I am trying to capture is gone," he explains.
Encouraged with the response flash messaging has seen on Android, Truecaller is now extending the feature to its iPhone users with an app update that will roll out this week.
At last count, over 41 million users had upgraded to Truecaller 8 for Android, the one that supports flash messaging. Both parties need to be using a compatible version for the feature to be available, and Truecaller says that over 6 million people are already using flash messaging. So far, about 60 percent of the flash messages sent have been text-only, while the rest are emojis and location updates, Nami tells Gadgets 360.
Thanks to platform limitations, flash messaging will not work exactly like it does on Android. For one, the incoming messages will not be able to take over the entire screen, like it’s possible on Android.
"However, you do get a notification... [that] will last for 60 seconds," says Nami. If you open it, you will be taken to the full-blown flash messaging interface inside the Truecaller app where you can respond with text, emoji, or location, just like its Android counterpart. Despite the limitations, Nami says this implementation manages to capture the sense of urgency of Flash Messaging.
He adds that flash messaging for Android was "built with India in mind, and was built by our team in India". Truecaller has seven engineers based in Bengaluru, with five of them focussing on payments/ messaging-related features, while the rest work on analytics.
To say that Truecaller has been well received in India would be an understatement. More than 50 percent of its 250 million users are from India, and there’s no slowing down the company just yet - over 200,000 of the 250,000 new users that it adds every day come from India. Given the prevalence of spam calls and the popularity of Android - with fewer iOS-like limitations, Truecaller works best of Google’s platform - in India, its popularity is no surprise. But behind the scenes, that has needed plenty of work to make sure the service is accessible for everyone.
"All the growth in India has been organic, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t spend time on it. We spent a lot of time in making sure, for example, that all the number series work," says Nami. "When you are sending OTP to verify a phone number, you are not denying a bunch of users that come from a carrier in India that may be just in South India and has a small user base and has a specific number-series that is not really well documented."
"We’ve done of those kinds of investments in our plumbing," he explains with pride, adding that the company has worked with operators directly in most cases, instead of developing its app on top of third-party services.
While the India story of Truecaller is well-documented, some of the other big markets may come as a surprise to many. Egypt is next on the list, Nami reveals, and with over 20 million users, the USA is third. He adds that the app is also growing fast in Nigeria and South Africa, while Kenya is "already huge". We ask Nami why certain markets are bigger than others and if it has something to do with how common spam calls are in the country.
"Spam is not necessarily a factor, but the cultural mindset is a factor," he answers. "For instance, in Japan, people get spam text messages, people get spam calls, it’s not uncommon. The only difference is that culturally, it’s not okay for me to call you unless I’ve texted you before and told you ‘Can I call you?’"
That explains why the app hasn’t taken off in Japan, but two key markets where Truecaller doesn’t seem to have much to show for either are south-east Asia and China. We asked Nami why that was the case and he puts it down to local factors.
He says that in the key south-east Asian market of Indonesia, for example, adoption of 3G - a minimum requirement for Truecaller’s caller ID technology to work, since a data connection cannot be active during an incoming voice call over 2G - has been slow, which has had a direct impact on Truecaller adoption.
"China is an extremely perfect market-fit for Truecaller. As a service, we know that it’s needed. We know that there’s a lot of the same behaviour patterns - you can call people out of the blue, it happens frequently.. all the technology enables are there. There’s already other companies that [do] spam protection and bunch of other things."
"We briefly, back in 2015, starting to look [at] and develop specifically for the Chinese market... but at some point you reach [and] you ask yourself, ‘in the big scheme of things, how important is it to grown China from 1 million to 2 million versus growing India from 50 million to 100 million?’."
By Nami’s own admission, Truecaller is too slow for Chinese users to be really useful, thanks to the Great Firewall of China. Fixing this would’ve required setting up data centres inside the country, an expensive proposition.
Nami points out that back in 2016 the company wasn’t monetising its services and with the limited resources at its disposal, continuing to focus on China would’ve meant raising more money.
"At that point we decided that we will just keep going all-in on India and the markets that we are already seeing a lot of traction in, and any market that comes to us, we will make sure we are on top of it, but we are not going to chase big markets. We want to make sure that we both position and cement in countries where we are already seeing a lot of traction."
These countries include Jordan and Lebanon, two of the initial markets for Truecaller, with the app being nearly as prevalent as voice and SMS in the latter - Nami says 95 to 97 percent of Lebanon’s population is active every month on Truecaller.
Half of Nami and Truecaller’s homeland of Sweden uses the app, and he tells the story of how Truecaller users were less impacted by a recent spam attack that used SMS to target users across the country. Thanks to community reporting and built-in SMS filtering, Truecaller callers caught on to the scam much faster than others, Nami reveals. He also highlights how Truecaller has helped protect users around the world against the One Ring Scam.
While millions might now be using Truecaller for spam protection, the app started from a much more basic need. The year was 2008, and Nami and his co-founder Alan Mamedi were Masters students in Sweden, studying a course where the medium of instruction was English.
Nami recalls most students enrolled for the course was foreigners and he made a lot of friends from India, Pakistan, China, US, the Middle East, and other regions. During Summer and Christmas, these friends would go back to their countries, and before coming back they would reconnect via SMS. Nami says Sweden has public directories where you can find anyone’s number, and it was frustrating getting text from random numbers, and not even knowing which country it is. "If I knew which country it is, I could maybe figure out which friend it is," he says with a laugh.
"So, basically we built a first prototype of [Truecaller], and put it on XDA forums - I think the posts are still there - and we got 10,000 downloads in a week."
"[We thought] probably there are more people who have this problem, that’s when we started to see how can we improve the app." First version of the app only used public directories as a source, and the developers leveraged the XDA community to identify more sources for each country.
"That was the first version, and now we are on version 8 - and it’s been 8 years," he adds.
The co-founders built the first version of the app using PHP and MySQL, and this codebase served them well until 2013, when they hit 60 million users. "[By then], it was shaking so badly, we had about 4-5 hours downtime every week," Nami recalls with a chuckle. "[That’s when] we said to our CTO, ‘Please take it over, you can build whatever you want’."
Nami says the duo still write code, but only for "small side projects". The last bit of code they wrote for the main Truecaller app was removed end of last year, which prompted a ‘celebration’ by the team’s engineers. "Nami and Alan’s code is completely gone, we have a clean system," he laughs as he recalls what one of the engineers said at the time.
At one point during our conversation, Nami asks me if I use Truecaller. I say I do, but not in the way majority of the app’s users would. I point out that I don’t like the idea of uploading my address book to the cloud for Truecaller to use, violating the privacy of those who’ve trusted me with their contact information in the process. This means I cannot use the app’s caller ID feature, which requires access to the user’s contacts. Instead, if I end up missing someone’s call, I say, I like to use the Truecaller share widget to look up the person’s number.
"Even if you give us access, we don’t publish those contacts," Nami points out, after he’s given me a hearing. He admits that the app used to do that before, but since 2014, this has no longer been the case. Now, Nami says, all data is crowd-sourced, manually entered by Truecaller users. He demoes the after-call screen that Android users see, which can be used to ‘Suggest’ the name of the person whose call they just received.
That begs the question of why Truecaller needs access to contacts in the first place?
"We need to know who is in your phone book so we only show [Truecaller] notification if someone is not in your phone book [is calling]. Without having access to your phone book, we won’t know who is not in your phone book. So either we blast you [with the Truecaller UI] with everyone who calls you, or we just show you only for those you don’t [have in your phone book]," Nami says - an explanation that makes sense.
Where the Truecaller mobile applications ("Truecaller Apps") are obtained from other sources than Apple App Store or Google Play, You may share the names, numbers, Google ID’s and email addresses contained in Your address book ("Contact Information") with Truecaller by enabling the Truecaller Enhanced Search Functionality.
Beyond core features
Truecaller has come a long way from the basic caller ID app, but as we touched upon earlier, it’s grown to represent a lot of things for different people. While the company initially experimented with different apps like Truedialer and Truemessenger - intended as replacements for your phone’s Dialer and SMS app respectively - its recent moves have been about consolidating these features into the main app.
Initially, Nami says, users were not happy when the functionality of the core app grew beyond its intended purpose, but off late, the reaction has been a lot more positive.
"When we built Truecaller v7," he recalls, "some people were not happy with the fact that we sunset-ed Truedialer and moved it into Truecaller, but with Truecaller 8 we moved messenger, [and the reaction has been] all positive."
We asked then if launching Truedialer and Truemessenger as separate apps was a bad idea, and if the company would’ve been better off adding these features to the main app from the start. Nami explains not having these features part of the main Truecaller app allowed them to evolve at their own pace.
"As founders I think we knew exactly where we were heading and what we wanted to accomplish - communicating it externally would’ve been hard - but I am not sure even internally, you know, it would be question of ‘Why are we prioritising this [feature] versus that’. By taking it out of the equation, and kind of taking it as a side-step, it’s not gonna affect the main product, the iterations can happen as quickly or slowly as they want," he explains.
"Availability was launched in Truedialler first and was then pushed into Truecaller even before the dialler came there," he carries on. "We started to build these features and learnt a lot abut how to make them battery efficient, or make them memory/ resource efficient, and push that back into the Truecaller app - because if we had messed up the Truecaller app, there would’ve been a much bigger impact."
What’s next for Truecaller
Though Truecaller for Android lets you hide the app’s layer that shows up on top of incoming calls to reveal the phone app’s UI, Nami says the number one request he still gets from users is that the app should add the ability to, well, get rid of the Truecaller layer when needed. "We even added an on-boarding tutorial", he says with a laugh, "but that hasn’t helped."
"In the past, one of the biggest requests used to be, can you do this [filtering and identification] for my SMS," Nami carries on. "Which is why we were extra excited about Truecaller 8 and the whole communication platform, moving in a direction - and we started to move their with the introduction of the dialler - where full capability of the service isn’t visible until you start to do more and more things to make communication safe and efficient, which is kinda what we aim to do in general."
Having made dialler and SMS apps redundant, we ask Nami is users want Truecaller to expand on the flash messaging offering and, perhaps, make WhatsApp go down the same route? He admits that an expansion of the messaging feature is inevitable, but sees Truecaller following the footsteps of another popular app.
"Sooner or later you will have to have different types of messaging [in Truecaller]," says Nami. "We like to keep our ears to the ground […] WhatsApp is a fantastic service - it’s hard to comment on that, it’s so omnipresent. But, in general, we do see a lot of comments about being able to do more of the communication within Truecaller, in a similar fashion that iOS users are used to using iMessage and FaceTime in [their] call history as a common way of communicating."