Eric S. Yuan, one of the richest men in the world, shares a connection with an Indian youngster, Joy Sebastian, who hails from a remote fishing village in Cherthala, Kerala, India—both are creators of video conferencing apps. Yuan created Zoom, and Joy’s Vconsol is the local alternative to the controversial video conferencing behemoth.
India partially banned Zoom in April 2020, forbidding its use at the Union government level and replacing it with Joy’s Vconsol. “The platform is not allowed for use by government officers for official purposes. Zoom is not a safe platform,” the Home Ministry said, citing security concerns. The ministry also advised private users on how to avoid issues such as “Zoombombing”—when uninvited guests join the video call, often to harass users. India’s cyber-security agency, CERT-In, issued warnings in 2020 over the app’s security vulnerabilities.
Techgentsia, the startup behind Vconsol, won prize money of INR 1 crore (USD 135,000) in August 2019 in a contest organized by the Ministry of IT. The contest was part of an initiative launched by Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi to “develop India’s software products and mobile app economy in a big way.”
Following its anointment to become the official video conference platform for Indian government agencies after winning the prize, Vconsol cloned a dedicated instance of its service and rebranded it as BharatVC, exclusive to India’s Union Government. The National Informatics Center (NIC), under India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT, provides the infrastructure to run BharatVC. As some parts of India are still under partial lockdown that has led to a surge of online meetings, the NIC plans to leverage its server capacity by 10x to cater to all government departments.
Indian government agencies have used Vconsol on various occasions. For example, it was the medium for Modi’s video conference with the country’s Olympic athletes and their family members. Techgentsia has also designed a hybrid court for several southern states in India. Government institutions like Comptroller and the Auditor General’s office, Atomic Research Centre, and Indian Plasma Research Institute have migrated to Vconsol.
Techgentsia’s contract with the government is for three years, during which the firm will receive an additional INR 10 lakh (USD 13,546) annually towards the maintenance of the project.
But the provincial governments have not accepted Vconsol yet. Two months ago, Vconsol decided to open its service to the public at a cost. It charges a subscription fee of INR 13,200 (USD 178) per year. On the other hand, Zoom offers a free basic plan.
Zoom’s growth was confirmed by Yuan in a chat with Rajan Anandan, president of TiE Delhi-NCR and MD, Sequoia Capital, during India Internet Day 2020 in August last year. Yuan said that his favorite usage of Zoom in India is telemedicine.
“Other good uses are online classes and online teaching from central universities, schools, and colleges. There are also lots of yoga and fitness classes through Zoom in India. Wedding celebrations in India over Zoom are becoming very popular as well”, Yuan said. Currently, more than 3,000 Indian schools are using the service.
Yuan mentioned that many of Zoom’s employees are of Indian origin, including its mentor and investor, Subrah S. Iyer, COO Aparna Bawa, president of product and engineering Velchamy Sankarlingam, and chief information officer Sunil Madan.
Zoom was not discouraged nor deterred by India’s partial ban, after which the company announced that its private users in India can buy their preferred plans and add-ons with local currency. “India remains a key focus market for Zoom, and we will continue striving to grow as an Indian company,” said Sameer Padmakumar Raje, India head for Zoom.
Zoom had been relying on telecom operators like Airtel to sell its product. It also has plans to open a technology center in Bengaluru.
The ban on Zoom in central government departments was a blessing for Vconsol. The turnover of Techgentsia, which was USD 1 million, has grown to USD 5 million, said Joy Sebastian, founder and CEO of Techgentsia. “We have enough revenue from selling our products. We never looked for venture capital. We will only accept funding if it is in line with our goals and if it helps in value addition,” Sebastian told KrASIA.
While Zoom is still on a tear in India, Sebastian is also determined to compete in Zoom’s home turf, the US. Techgentsia has set up its US operations in New Jersey to cater to its clients like Kypura, GoDaddy, and Zendesk. According to Sebastian, it has a million users across multiple continents.
The multilingual video conferencing app also has an eye on the telemedicine and education market. “These are the two segments that are in top demand amid a new post-Covid world order, which has made health and learning increasingly e-centric,” Sebastian said.
To tap that demand, his company has been developing Vconsol Education, a virtual classroom facility with built-in security features to protect the privacy of students, in addition to Vconsol Family for family members to call each other privately and securely.
Using Vconsol, audio and video streams from all participants are collected and mixed on the server-side and sent back to participants as a single stream for enhanced performance and reliability. Vconsol can operate on Android, iOS, Mac, Windows, and Linux. It contains all the video conferencing features of existing solutions and can host up to 80 people in one conference. It is end-to-end encrypted, so there is no intermediate manipulation. The technology stitches the video into one stream after receiving the videos from the client-side. The single stream is again encrypted and sent back to the client so that it is secured.
Sebastian’s village is in Kerala’s Alappuzha district in southern India, best known for houseboat cruises along the rustic backwaters and the Communist upsurge of 1946. His company, Techgentsia, is based at Info Park there.
Sebastian is a first-generation learner in his family. His father, P Thobias Sebastian, was a fisherman; and his mother, Mary (Joseph) Sebastian, a housewife.
Sebastian joined web audio conferencing tools company Aavenir in Kochi in 2000 after completing his MCA degree from TKM College of engineering. His friends helped him pay his college fees. In 2006, Sebastian worked as a remote consultant for a US-based company. He founded Techgentsia in 2009, along with his friend Tony Thomas.
Four years before Sebastian joined Aavenir, in 1997, Yuan, speaking little English at the time, arrived in the US after nine attempts of applying for a visa and joined WebEx, a web conferencing startup of Mumbai-born Subrah S Iyer, where he was one of the first 20 hires. It was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2007 for USD 3.2 billion. In 2011, Yuan pitched a new smartphone-friendly video conferencing system. When it was rejected, Yuan left Cisco to establish Zoom. In spite of that, Yuan is not shy about recognizing his tie with WebEx and Iyer, from whom he took his middle name S.
Compared to Sebastian’s humble background, Yuan is the son of geology engineers. As a student in 1987, he envisioned video telephony software while he took ten-hour train rides to visit his girlfriend and was looking for an easier way to “visit” her.
“At that time, there was no such app; he learned video conferencing from WebEx in 2001,” Sebastian said. “I also had a similar idea when I was younger, but it wasn’t inspired by a girlfriend,” he added.
It appears that Yuan’s Zoom, despite all the controversies, will still have a firm presence in India. Meanwhile, Vconsol is only likely to grow stronger as part of a local push for technology self-reliance. The two online conferencing companies, with their indirect or direct links with India, are on their ways to duel it out in one of the world’s largest markets for video conferencing.