India’s Paytm wallet app places big bet on messaging

India’s largest mobile wallet app, Paytm, on Friday introduced a chat service — Inbox — on its payment platform to enable communication between users and also facilitate a way for businesses to connect with their customers. The move comes as messaging app Facebook’s WhatsApp, which plans to soon add an option on its service to allow its users to send and request money, recently began testing a tool called WhatsApp Business to explore commercial use-cases for its service.

Paytm Inbox, which will be made available on Android platform early Friday morning in India, lets users exchange texts, images and videos with their friends over an end-to-end encrypted protocol, the company said. The Noida, India-headquartered firm has taken several cues from other messaging services: it supports the ability to share real-time location with friends, and also lets users recall their messages — two features that WhatsApp recently introduced on its service, though both have been available on other messaging platforms for sometime. Paytm is also bringing in-app games to its app, it said, a feature Tencent-backed Hike Messenger has offered for some time.

Paytm, which counts Japan’s SoftBank and China’s Alibaba as its investors, is targeting clients such as retail stores and home-based entrepreneurs with Paytm Inbox, it said without disclosing any of the launch partners. In May this year, Paytm raised $1.4bn from SoftBank, giving the Japanese telecoms and technology group a 20 percent stake in the company. At the time, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma said the company would be using the fresh capital to expand Paytm’s financial services.

The rationale behind the unsual move of adding messaging feature to the wallet app, which is used by over 200 million users in the country, was the realization that there is a need of “social messaging, commerce and payments [to] seamlessly blend into one another,” Deepak Abbot, vice president of Paytm, said in a press statement. Several messaging apps, including Tencent-owned WeChat, and Hike Messenger, have added support for payment option over the years on their respective apps. Paytm competes with MobiKwik and Ola Money mobile wallet apps in India.

WeChat’s Nilay Arora throwing shade at WhatsApp. Tencent, which owns WeChat, backs Hike Messenger in India.

“One step for us towards meeting this consumer need is ‘Paytm Inbox’ where you can chat with friends/ merchants and send/ receive money effortlessly and securely. This will help us drive greater engagement on our platform and build a stronger bond with our customers,” Mr. Abbot said.

That ambition will be anything but music to WhatsApp’s ears. WhatsApp has over 200 million active users in India, its largest market. (Facebook’s marquee service, in comparison, is quickly nearing 200 million active users mark in the country, as well.) The company recently began testing WhatsApp Business, an app which enables businesses to connect with customers. Several Indian companies including movie ticketing website BookMyShow, and air ticketing website GoIbibo have joined the platform to make use of the service. The company hasn’t shared how soon it plans to open WhatsApp Business to all.

WhatsApp Business is Facebook’s first major attempt to generate revenue from the mammoth messaging app used by over a billion people globally. While it does that, the company has also been working on bringing the ability to send and receive money via WhatsApp, a feature largely aimed at the Indian market.

The payment feature, references of which developers recently found combing WhatsApp’s Android app, could be rolled-out to customers by the end of the year, a person familiar with the matter said. Indian business news outlet The Ken first reported about WhatsApp’s intention to bring payments option to its service. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has plans to visit India in early December, two people familiar with the matter told me recently.

Last November, the Indian government invalidated 86 percent of the cash in the country, creating a months-long cash crunch, which spurred an exponential growth in the usage of digital wallet apps. In the aftermath, several companies including global giant Samsung and Google have launched their respective payment services in India. Google is offering people money — like, literally — to lure customers into using its Tez payments app. The company has also partnered with several large giants, including movie theatre chain PVR Cinemas, airline Jet Airways, and pizza group Domino’s, in India to expand the reach of Tez app.

The payments space is only going to get more crowded in the country. Amazon is at present holding discussions with officials from RBI (India’s central banking institution) to explore different ways to expand its Amazon Pay service in the country, five sources familiar with the matter told me. Apple is eyeing India’s payments market, too, Eddy Cue, senior vice president of internet software and services at the company told the Economic Times in an interview last month. In a seperate interview with LiveMint, Cue said the company could partner with players such as Paytm when it brings its payment service to the country. In a study, co-authored by Google, Boston Consulting Group estimated that India’s payments market could reach $500 billion in 2020.

Even as it appears that Paytm and WhatsApp are going after one another’s market, it might be too early to identify them as rivals. For one, Neeraj Arora, the vice-president of business development for WhatsApp, sits on the board of Paytm. Second, on the sidelines of The Wall Street Journal’s D.Live Singapore event, Mr. Sharma said he was open to a partnership with WhatsApp. At the event, he also said the company intends to expand to developed markets.

Further reading: Alipay, WeChat Take Battle for Mobile-Payment Dominance Overseas (WSJ)

Google, Amazon, Alibaba, And The Battle For Fintech In India (CBInsights)