Before 2013, US-based Peel was known more for its pear-shaped $99 device that allowed smartphones to operate as remote controls for television, until Samsung approached Peel (still a small startup) to develop an interactive and integrated app for its devices.
The app would enhance viewer television experience with an in-built IR blaster, effortlessly merging Peel software and hardware into Samsung devices. The app specialises in “program discovery, TV program interaction, and intelligent home room control.” In just under 30 months, Peel’s new smart universal remote app -- as it is known -- reached 100 million total users across 87 countries (the app itself works in 200+ countries). The same feat took Facebook four-and-a-half years to accomplish.
This year, by October, Peel reached an average of five billion monthly commands.
To Thiru Arunachalam, CEO and Co-founder of Peel, the success of this app came as an initial surprise. When Samsung first approach his team, Arunachalam saw the proposition as more of a side project. But, the demand for Peel in the US -even India- has been staggering. Already, Peel has more than one million users in India. Quite naturally, Peel is an indelible forerunner in this area; it works with nearly 3,500 brands of television and 600 set-top boxes, including Airtel, Tata Sky, Dish TV, Hathway, DEN and Siti Cable (besides working with air conditioners, too). It features TV listings from WhatsOnIndia for Indian users. With numerous big name investors already in its nifty pocket, Peel recently drew in $50 million worth of strategic investment from Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant devouring every news headline for over a month.
One of the most interesting aspects of Peel is its user engagement. In the 2012 season of American Idol, the app data of the top 12 performances recorded viewers’ cheers and boos to predict which singers would most likely be eliminated from the competition. The same year, it made a disturbingly accurate electoral prevision based on user response to the presidential candidate debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Recently, Peel launched its Peel.in platform. It allows TV networks to share unique tune-in URLs on social networking sites to promote TV shows. Users who click on these links can tune-in directly through their Peel apps, or set reminders on their phones.
Today, Peel comes preloaded on various Android smartphones and tablets, many of which are already sold in India, like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5 & Xolo Q2100. Soon, Peel will be available on Spice and Celkon phones. The swiftness with which India went from landlines to mobile phones is an indication of how fast Indian consumers are capable of adopting new technologies, allowing apps like Peel to hold ground in India.
The smart universal remote and TV guide/recommendation app is a stepping stone for Indian audiences to slowly move towards streaming, and enjoy ad-free entertainment of their choice at their own convenience.
Now in India, Peel is geared to seriously market its product for Indian viewers.
The East is not a region that can be ignored any more. With world centres fluctuating, the region has become an important decider of what global success really means.
Regarding its entrance into the Indian market, James Ryan, Head of Marketing, says, “We started with Samsung Galaxy 4 and then 5, which are very popular in the US with 30% market share. We’re also on HTC One, but we’re working with Indian distributors, too. We’ve announced a couple of deals like Xolo and Spice. We’ve got three or four other Indian phone manufacturers that we’ve not announced yet, but within the next few months, you’ll be hearing some additional news.”
“Once the app is preloaded on the phone, it’s really a utility that’s very well integrated into the phone functionality.”
Arunachalam equivocally says, “Even though, I grew up in India, I didn’t really focus on India as a market. For us, the consumer market is huge. However, my initial introduction and attention to India came from Micromax and Lava, because in our business we closely tie with brands; our app is preloaded on devices like HTC, LG. When we were in China, we found out the Indian brands.
“Me and my co-founder were brought up in India. I spent a million hours of watching TV while growing. I love the fact that it helps us relax. I appreciate India, but at the same time, it is a complicated market from different aspects, so I’m still learning,” says Arunachalam.
He has an Apple background, so he comes from a discipline that believes any product should be built in a way that even a child can use it. This philosophy is also what he hopes will help overcome India’s unique challenge: cultural (programming) and linguistic diversity.“Even though it has text,” says Arunachalam, “the images are what we really bet on. When you see it, you know what it is.”
Because, the remote control and navigation visuals are largely universal, all it takes is visual perception to understand what the app is showing you, then what to do next. This isn’t to say there is no language used, but it significantly reduces the burden of overcoming language barriers. This is precisely why it’s used across 87 countries.
Even Ryan believes there’s no going anywhere without tackling these two issues.
“There’s a huge challenge to provide TV content for all the different regions and languages in India,” says Ryan, “and I think we can’t have success in India unless we do that. I know it’s not perfect yet, but we’re well on the road to having content that meets the needs of everyone in India.”
To be fair, Peel relies on smartphones, and India’s smartphone penetration is only 10% - one of the lowest in the top 30 smartphone markets. However, in 2013, smartphone subscription rate was pegged at ~55%, the fastest in the same market. The International Data Corporation (IDC) expects the 2011-2016 growth rate to average around 57.5% thanks to smartphone prices dropping from a cool $200 to a $50 a pop.
The biggest challenges, though, would be data services themselves. Peel relies on Wi-Fi, and India still has poor infrastructure in this area, besides high-speed connections still being an expensive affair. Providing early-adopted cutting edge technology is hard enough without the hassle of unreliable infrastructure.
“You have to have Wi-Fi or some sort of radio connection like 2G,” says Arunachalam. “But, the remote control will even work without Internet. It downloads everything it needs from the app. As far as content goes - what’s playing on your TV - you can download it for the week, but that’s a challenge. For instance, in China, they don’t allow us to move servers in the US. There are a lot of issues there.”
But, Arunachalam feels India will hopefully move fast in the right direction. It’s only a matter of time before streaming becomes the norm, and Peel wants to be there at the starting line when that happens.
“We’re looking at local streaming players, too. We’re having some very interesting conversations with these guys beyond partnerships - with carriers.”
Lastly, Arunachalam says, “We could actually look at the entire house one day. There’s a lot of excitement around connected homes; we’re starting to explore that in addition to streaming. I don’t know if we’re ready for that or not, but I’ve heard of apartments with these features here. Without knowing the market, I don’t want to speak, though.”
Arunachalam may not be the first to have had this idea. The thought of controlling your surroundings and programming with the click of a “button” is an idea that naturally comes to you.
Until then, you can register with Peel.