tech

This Indian firm wants to give you a reliable, more secure alternative to Zoom

Released in beta just a few days ago, the app has crossed 5 lakh users already. How does the app exactly work? How secure is it? We chatted with the team behind it to find out

In its current form, you can use Say Namaste for good, clear calls with about 25 people. The app hopes to scale it up to include at least a 100 people soon. Also, it collects no data from you whatsoever.
In its current form, you can use Say Namaste for good, clear calls with about 25 people. The app hopes to scale it up to include at least a 100 people soon. Also, it collects no data from you whatsoever. (Say Namaste)

At a time when we cannot meet each other and do the things we normally did to stay in touch and converse, apps like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Duo, Blue Jeans, Microsoft Teams, Zoom etc have come to our rescue. Stuck at home for a while now, video calls have become a mainstay for most of us. You might be using them for your office calls or to just chat with friends and family.

However, while some apps allow only a few participants to take part in a video/voice chat, others have been dealing with a whole bunch of security and privacy issues. In all this, the need to find a secure, stable alternative, preferably an indigenous one, has been growing.

Enter, Say Namaste.

Made by Mumbai-based company Inscripts, Say Namaste dropped into the scene just a few days ago and has already crossed half a million users (five lakhs). They are adding roughly one lakh users per day.

For starters, let's make it clear that Say Namaste is not the Indian government's official video calling app. The government has called on tech companies to develop a secure alternative to Zoom and has declared prize money of 1 crore to the winner, and Say Namaste will be participating. However, the app is in it's beta testing phase for now, and can only be accessed online, from saynamaste.in (More on this later).

Also Read: Govt invites tech companies to build a secure Zoom-alternative, winner to get 1 crore

Inscripts was founded by twin brothers Anuj and Anant Garg who have been in the business of creating communication products for enterprises for the past 10 years. The company claims it's APIs (application program interfaces) are used by various companies for their video conferencing facilities, text chats etc.

Say Namaste, though, came into being by chance, on a day when the team was discussing privacy concerns in video calls. Why isn't there an Indian app? We need one, they thought, and the rest, as they say, is (recent) history.

"We have developed this underlying technology, we have expertise in this, why don't we just go build our own app? That was the genesis," said Anuj. So, the team went ahead and built a web app that they started using to communicate internally. "One of us suggested Namaste and it immediately resonated with everyone," Anuj said, while talking about where the name came from. According to him, this was the first time the team used its own product as a customer.

Anuj eventually decided to put it on Facebook so that he could get some real-world feedback. He also sent a few links out on WhatsApp. While the team decided to sleep on it, a few days later Anuj was woken up to a whole barrage of texts about a company that has launched a new video-conferencing app.

Forget Zoom and others, use this Indian-made app….

Anuj realised that people were talking about Say Namaste.

We have been working 24/7 to keep up with the demand, to see how we can scale this solution, it's a massive spike, said Anuj.

"We have been serving enterprise customers in the past, we know what it takes to serve these customers," he said adding that when you move from catering to 5,000 customers to 500,000, it brings its own set of challenges.

"We have worked with banks, medical services etc, so privacy and security are a part of Inscript's DNA," Anuj explained. While a lot of things were already in place, the company is now thinking of ways to strengthen the app and to scale it. "Right now all our efforts are towards breaking our own software, so nobody else can break it," he added.

The ship is being built while they sail it, and the focus is on keeping it very simple — a one-click video conferencing experience from start to the end. When something goes viral, you cannot plan for it, you scale with it," said Anuj.

"My usability tester on this is my mother. As long as she can figure it out it's great," he said. He goes back to the drawing board whenever his mother says she can't understand something on the app.

How does one use Say Namaste to chat?

As mentioned above, you start at saynamaste.in. Enter your name and hit 'start meeting'. You share the details of this meeting with anyone and once it starts, they come on to the same site, enter their name, the meeting ID, and the secure meeting code to join. The meeting ID and a private meeting code are essential to all calls, which keeps people from joining uninvited.

A one-click video-conferencing solution with servers in India, so data residency is assured.
A one-click video-conferencing solution with servers in India, so data residency is assured. (saynamaste.in)

The company claims that the site does not collect your email ID, and it does not ask you to log in with Facebook or Google. You can enter any name you want to use for the meeting. "We are only collecting data that is needed to facilitate your call, like your IP address. But we use that over the duration of the call and it is forgotten after that. We aren't storing anything on our servers right now, no chats, nothing. We are reducing all those possibilities of security breaches," Anuj explained.

How secure is all of this?

Cyptographic standards like AES 256 bit encryption and TLS (Transport Security Layer) encryption are already in place, Anuj claims.

"All our data is encrypted at rest and encrypted at transmit. We also have our GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliance in place. Things like 2FA (two-factor authentication) are being built and will be launched soon, we are still experimenting with it in terms of how we make sure that the experience is not broken," he added.

"End-to-end encryption gets thrown about like it is the be-all and end-all of security, but that's not the case. There are many, many factors that go into making a secure application. Encryption is one of them and we are encrypted," said Anuj.

The company is working on a lot of things as it tries not only to scale its product, but also to get all the security protocols in place. "We are in the process of getting a third-party independent audit done. The idea is to start figuring out what the chinks in the armour are," Anuj explained.

The app is built for simpler use cases right now, but Anuj said the company will add customised log-ins and authentication systems (usually required for enterprise use cases) when the need arises.

The fact that Say Namaste is based in India means it's servers are based here too, which is another thing that the company hopes will set it apart from other video-conferencing apps. "Depending on how this moves ahead we are also working with a few corporates as a pilot right now, so we can figure out special needs and build the safeguards here instead of getting it from outside India," Anuj said.

While Anuj says that comparisons with Zoom, which is a multi million dollar company, is unfair at this point, Inscript is aware that it is building up to take on giants.

"We are making sure we learn from others' mistakes. Our focus right now is to be in tune with what our customers need," Anuj said.

How many people on a call then?

Anuj said that they have been doing "really good calls with about 25 participants" and there are people who have done calls with more participants, their data shows that, but they are not sure how scalable that is right now.

The company's target is to reach 100 participants. But it doesn't stop there. "It's not purely a numerical thing. One also has to look at the use case. Like in a webinar, for a 1,000 participants, you don't necessarily want everyone to use video. That's a one-to-many kind of a conversation as opposed to a many-to-many conversation — there are different ways to scale that," he explained.

What can you not do on Say Namaste right now?

Anuj said the company is working on features that will be "game changers", but there are still things you can't do on Say Namaste. At least for now.

For one, there is no app right now. Say Namaste is only supported on laptops, desktops or Android phones (not iOS) through the Chrome browser.

Its phone apps are being tested. "We have already published it on the Play Store and the App Store and sent it for review. But it's not out for the public yet," Anuj said. Besides the apps, the team will also be adding more browser support.

Say Namaste is free right now but there will be a premium model in future for power users.