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Browserling goes viral with cheap phone users trying to use WhatsApp (catonmat.net)
480 points by amasad 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 222 comments



I feel like what he did at the end was the right thing to do (talk to Indian people, figure out a way to monetize it), but the initial antics are childish and distasteful. Those are real people man, not toys... don't play with them.


>Then I got curious. Would these users tweet anything that I asked them? [...] And it worked!

>That was super hilarious. I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. TAIWAN NUMBER ONE! COMPETITORS NUMBER NINE!

Hahaha, people in dire financial situations who have to use my service are doing what I tell them to! Ain't that just hilarious?

Distasteful, really.


[flagged]


HN is not a hive-mind, stop trying to make it one and get off your high horse. The Facebook messages didn't seem like they were from people who thought they were entitled to anything, I saw two people trying to ask him politely, with sir and please, and others trying hard to spell weird app names.

People were using the trial feature browserling provided on its main page and not breaking any terms and conditions while doing so, so not freeloaders. Browserling is entitled to blocking these users or limiting the trial feature and the Facebook messages were from the time when they were not trying to monetize by asking for $0.10

I know sweeping generalizations about a group of people most certainly less fortunate than you are easy and you definitely are entitled to your opinion but don't try and label it as something "HN thinks".


Because it doesn't look like they were freeloaders, they tried to use a service, did what the author asked, and didn't pay 10 cents because they couldn't pay it, as Stripe doesn't work for many people in India, as the blog post says. The author's response is no way to treat people, users or not.


Aren't we all freeloading HN btw :-)


Writing posts seems more like freeworking to me so the value of reading what others write gets balanced by the opportunity costs of contributing.


Hear hear. Also that click-baity title. I guess I'm old because reading it I thought what a little brat. Or is the term brogrammer?


    "Brogrammer" is a slang term for a stereotypically masculine programmer. The word is a portmanteau of bro and programmer. 
I'd say he's more of a scriptkiddy/skid, as i feel he is not capable to handle the opportunity. Heck, he could even become that programmer from Black Mirror S04E01!

Toying around with your customers, blegh. People were desperate, couldnt he see?


I don't quite understand how this works. WhatsApp web just lets you access your messages on a different device, it doesn't let you register an individual account or anything. Surely that means this people already have a phone that has WhatsApp? Why not just use that instead of this complex workaround to get it on the other phone?


Jio is really really cheap... Last year when I was in India they had an amazing launch offer where you got 3 months 4G free, with 4Gb / day (yes per day!) bandwidth. It worked really well, and roamed easily between states.

I'm going to guess that:

* The phone is free / really cheap, advertising subsidised. Or subsidised to cross sell other Jio services (they have a bunch).

* It doesn't have WhatsApp either because it's pushing Jio services or because it is ultra low end.

* The users have another phone with an expensive data plan. They leave it at home on wifi running WhatsApp.

Not sure though...


Yes, but if you've already got a proper phone why not use that with the SIM from Jio. Surely the whole point of JioPhone is for users that have no other phone as it is so affordable?

Can't make heads or tails of this :)


Is whatsapp tied to a sim? couldn't they register for an account by borrowing someone else's phone or something?


Yes, but the phone needs to be active and switched on for whatsapp web to work and AFIAK you can only have one whatsapp account per phone unless there is some weird hack I don't know about.

WhatsApp on the phone is effectively a server, and whatsapp web is a client. I can't see how their e2e encryption could work otherwise.


Could they be running WhatsApp, e.g., on an emulator? Then the jio phone is their only real mobile device. Maybe they’ve even found a no-cost cloud service to host the emulator?


You don't need an emulator.

https://github.com/tgalal/yowsup


WhatsApp native and WhatsApp web doesn't work on those phones.


But (unless it changed since I tried it) WhatsApp Web requires you to have WhatsApp running on a phone already, so as far as I can tell these people must be running WhatsApp on a phone that can run WhatsApp so that they can run WhatsApp in a browser on a phone that can't run WhatsApp.


WhatsApp has a J2ME version, no? Do those phones not run Java apps?


FirefoxOS


Probably use the cheap phone to transfer video or pic since data plans on Jio are very cheap. The people who are buying these phones dont have lot of disposable income.


AFIAK it needs to go to the 'real' phone first, then it sends from the device. It would still use a load of data (unless they are using WiFi, but I don't think penetration of fixed line broadband is very high in India).


If you disable automatic loading of files, the main device wont use the expensive data plan while the web watsapp on the cheaper plan, the user can download it manually.


I believe you can signup on WhatsApp web. You simply need a phone number to verify your account.


To use WhatsApp Web, your actual mobile device still needs to be connected. If I completely disconnect my phone, e.g. put it in airplane mode, I get this on WhatsApp web: Phone not connected. Make sure your phone has an active Internet connection.

https://imgur.com/NTIZpk8

The link follows to https://faq.whatsapp.com/faq/web/28080002

So I admit, I'm also struggling to see what the benefit of using WhatsApp through Browserling is.


I've put Whatsapp on several tablets by using free sim cards and an old smartphone. Still works.


How?


Actions on the smartphone:

Insert a 'free' sim card. Activate it. Write down the phone number.

Actions on the tablet:

Enable installation of unknown sources.

Download the apk file at https://www.whatsapp.com/android/

Execute the apk file

Use the phone number to activate Whatsapp


That's true, I've installed WhatsApp on phones with no SIM as well. You just need to verify the number, you don't actually need to have the SIM in for WhatsApp to work.


Oh, so you can run it in BlueStack as well?


I think so, but I've never tried that.


Thanks!


Funny that those cheap phones dont run WhatsApp natively. Remember when WhatsApp was new, one narrative was that it was so successful because it had a client for absolutely every system, including Symbian and Java Mobile.


Apparently they run a fork of FirefoxOS under the hood:

https://gadgets.ndtv.com/mobiles/news/reliance-jio-feature-p...


There used to be a barely-working whatsapp client on FFOS while it was still alive. OpenWapp was the name. And you could register/authenticate via SMS. Stopped working at some point though because whatsapp api changes.


interesting...so FirefoxOS ended up being somewhat of a success.


There is no value in collecting social graph data on owners of $20 phones.


It's a long play... Being the defacto messaging system in a country like India is certainly a position worth protecting.


But for how long.. IM apps come and go.


That's the big question that I think Facebook spends billions of dollars protecting: can we make IM users stick?

I think at some point, it becomes sticky if a huge part of the population has it.

So I don't think Facebook will try to shut down this guy. He is doing free work for them.


Allow me to repeat my comment from above: he could read/modify/inject arbitrary chat content. He could embed ads into Whatsapp interface. Lots of tech companies are trying to 'build for next billion', but this is clearly not the way forward.


It’s possible they used to. WhatsApp stopped supporting a range of older phones at the start of 2018.


that's probably a large portion of their market share, even if it was costly to support older devices, it was probably worth the DAUs


Very good point. I believe whatsapp is the one to be trolled.


The author's attitude towards his users reminds me of the young Zuckerberg who called his users "Dumb fks" for giving him their emails, pictures, addresses, SNS because they "trust me".

He might also be successful if he plays his cards right.


He wasn't calling his users dumb. He was calling the attackers dumb (for not randomizing their useragent), and then he realized it wasn't an attack.

And while the way he herded the users to spam others was distasteful, I think his pivot in the end was a positive thing.


I'm completely happy to see this happen to ~pkrumins. He's always seemed like a genuinely nice, brilliant fellow, who's stuck with his project in spite of the usual startup advice. (He submitted a YC application years ago that iirc didn't go very far.)

Hope this turns into some real success for him.


> He's always seemed like a genuinely nice, brilliant fellow

Really?

From TFA:

> "Then I got curious. Would these users tweet anything that I asked them? So I decided to troll my competitors a little bit, and asked users to tweet a popular meme Taiwan number one to them. And it worked! Suddenly Twitter was full with my troll tweets"

He's also a bit of a prick.


I guess there's a subtlety at work here that's difficult for the most vocal people on HN to grasp, going by the overall tone in the comments here. There's a difference between someone who's spent years of their professional life, largely ostracized by a tech community that should've supported them more, who suddenly gets a massive influx of users and initially assumes it's an attack and, when they discover it's not, take a hacker-ish approach to playing with the situation before sitting down and devoting 20 hours a day for days on end attempting to make the service work for those users even though they're clearly unwilling to pay very much for it ... and other actual assholes that this site has regularly worshipped, people who have built entire businesses out of exploiting users and employees alike.

I suppose that if any of us are lucky, we'll be successful enough one day to be burned at the stake on HN by a bunch of folks who can't tell the difference between "did one or a couple of things badly" and "is a bad person".


How is he a prick? What harm has he caused to anyone?


You mean besides lying to them and making them do things for some reward and then not giving the reward and laughing about it?


Whoa there. Calm down buddy. Before you bust out the pitchforks, he just asked them to post tweets. The cost to them is zero in money, and virtually zero in time.

Couple that with the fact that he was providing them with a free service and I only see a morally net positive contribution from him.


> The cost to them is zero in money, and virtually zero in time.

Ah yes, just like spam.

> Couple that with the fact that he was providing them with a free service

He wasn't. He was just giving them an error message after they Tweeted what he wanted.


> He wasn't. He was just giving them an error message after they Tweeted what he wanted.

Did you read the entire post? His service is available to India right now. Their tweets helped make that possible. It’s strange to me that you hate someone who provides a valuable service to people.


Did you read the entire post?

> And they did! All these users started following Browserling and tweeting about it. But they still couldn't use Browserling or Whatsapp, it was just a new message in place of "fatal error".

> It’s strange to me that you hate someone who provides a valuable service to people.

I don't care enough about him to hate him. I just said I think he's an asshole.


Something is off if you think he’s an asshole and his users in India don’t.


And how do you know they don’t?


On average it’s likely they don’t given they are using his product.


Pretty sure he gave them the reward? Can you not use browserling from India now?


> And they did! All these users started following Browserling and tweeting about it. But they still couldn't use Browserling or Whatsapp, it was just a new message in place of "fatal error".

> Then I got curious. Would these users tweet anything that I asked them? So I decided to troll my competitors a little bit, and asked users to tweet a popular meme Taiwan number one to them.

Then he seems to shift to actually trying to tell them when the service is available instead of pretending it will be if they send a tweet:

> Then instead of just tweeting and trolling, I asked users to start following Browserling on Facebook so I could reconnect with them and let them know when the software was up and running again.

And then finally he built something where they could sign up and it admitted they were building up server capacity to handle it. Then he moved to a lottery which it sounds like legitimately paid out, and he started to do legitimate monetisation of a not-entirely-firewall-blocked service.


He says he didn't at the time, in the post.


I read it differently. It sounded to me like he was trying to keep momentum up while he figured out a way to serve people. Maybe I misread it?


He's profitable and growing like a weed. The WhatsApp hack potentially opens up a huge new market for him.

Browserling has been a great investment, and he's a good friend as well. :)


Glad to see another Hackers/Founders company succeeding J!


I'm sure if you would be of a differing oppinion if you were a competitor suffering from attempted DDOS attacks, or bashful campaigns. Or if you were just someone who though his product was great going along with it on the promis of getting access only to find out you got lied to.

I guess it's just the case that for every ass-hole out there, there are people who'll stand besides him saying he's a great guy, simply because he's an asshole they know.


The maintainer of this software is a bit nutty, but actually this is pretty timely and captures two important truths that a lot of people might not appreciate:

1. International payments are hard because every country has its own system, and the people there have their own payment methods. In the US, you take it for granted that anyone with money to spend has a credit card that can make payments in US Dollars. It isn't valid to assume that for users outside the US. People may not have credit cards at all, or if they do they can't necessarily (economically) pay in US Dollars as the currency.

2. There are a LOT of potential users in international markets. Focusing on the First World (US, Europe, Japan, etc.) might be a great way to keep your project simple or speed up your launch, but you're leaving literally billions of potential users on the table if you don't even try to consider India, China, etc.


Back in the day as poor kid in India, my hardest stumbling block trying to apply to international universities was finding a credit card to pay for TOEFL. I had to move heaven and earth to find someone who had a credit card.


It's ironic that scores of users on phones, which are already capable of communicating, are milking a free service on the other side of the world to connect to a proprietary messaging service that subsumes the same population, to communicate there instead.


How is that ironic?

(Seems the battle over the correct usage of "ironic" has been lost long ago.)


I'm amazed hn users are bashing Peter for wanting to monetize the trafic. This is not a cheap service to run. He has to raise entire virtual machines and he's getting ddosed by thousands if not millions of people.

The fact they are indian is totally irelevant here.

Maybe making them tweet stupid stuff was a mistake but hey, we all do mistakes, that doesn't make us assholes. You don't know the relationship he has with his competitors, maybe they are in good terms. Why are people judging him this easily?


We're not (I'm not) bashing him for wanting to monetize. We're bashing him for lying to his users and laughing about it. "Haha, I made those stupid idiots tweet about Browserling and then blocked them anyway! Isn't that funny! Interesting that they'll tweet what I tell them. Dance for me, puppets, dance!"


It seems to me he blocked them because he had no solution to offer. He tried to get rid of the traffic any way he could because he had no solution to offer.


Then he shouldn't have told them they could Tweet to get service and then said "hahaaaaa, suckers, there's no service for you anyway!".


I see that as a way to learn how humans work (social engineering. :)


The fact that they are Indians is totally irrelevant here but the fact that they are humans and deserve to be treated like one, is not.

Don't get me wrong, I am against people calling Peter names and I didn't participate in bashing him. I have followed his blog for a long time, I eagerly await his book recommendations and read them, I felt bad for him when he didn't get that Google job and felt happy for the success of Browserling, I own a copy of Perl One-Liners because I enjoy his technical posts.

I don't even expect Peter to relate to his customers to this extent, but I at-least expect him to treat them like humans. I felt that this article's tone lacked empathy for humans which was wrong and although Peter doesn't deserve to be called an asshole for that but he does deserve to be criticized for it.


I wonder if the fact they are Indian is relevant here, especially given the timing of the influx of critical posts. It may be a difference in cultures and values. It seems like an absolute non-issue to me as an American, but I may be in the minority.

From my perspective, the tweets were not a mistake. They certainly weren't done with malicious intent to the tweeters, and they all for the purposes of marketing (with some meme humor mixed in). Isn't this pretty run of the mill for some twitter marketing campaign?


How do you feel about apps that make you like them on Facebook in order to sign up? As far as I know, the majority of people don't really like that, which is why Apple/Google don't take kindly to apps that ask for a five star rating before they start working.


It is jealously. The smartest people in a room are pissed off that someone else did it while they have to go prepare to do more spreadsheet color coding.


I don't understand how you can use web.whatsapp.com w/o having a phone connected as well. The web version pipes everything over to the phone, at least for me. You cannot use it, if your phone is not connected. What am I missing?


A lot of users in the Indian market own two cellphones. One is a smartphone with (usually) a prepaid data plan, and a “dumber” feature phone with a cheaper data plan. This allows people to effectively use WhatsApp from both phones, making it convenient to leave one at home and still be able to access your messages.


I see. Sounds weird that having 2 phones is cheaper than just one. Esp. since the smart phone is powerful enough to run WhatsApp. Why would one want a second phone and pay for a second data plan? I don't understand how that works out.


It's weird but some carriers offer basic phones with free data everyday. They don't give that in smartphones.


The one at home uses home internet, not a data plan.


Here is an update on Africa/Cameroon: http://www.catonmat.net/blog/browserling-cameroon/


What a fun story! So happy for the dev. I hope he can pull together the influx of people / usage into a good paying platform. That would be the best ending :-)


I am amazed at the backlash on Peter for a rather considerate response to a crippling attack.

He could have skipped the Twitter jokes but otherwise he did more than most businesses would do by providing a solution to these unexpected customers.

These users were (ab)using the free tier of Browserling beyond its intended use.

PS I highly recommend reading back issues of catonmat to see how much value to web and programming community Peter has provided over the years.


I would love if WhatsApp made a commodity phone.

An Android, that wasn't even Google Android, and may even look like candy bar.

All it would do would be:

1. Phone

2. Contacts

3. WhatsApp

4. Brave Browser (or Firefox Focus)

Perhaps it would have a camera, but only sufficient for WhatsApp.

Perhaps GPS/Maps would be built in, but only accessible for WhatsApp "share my location".

The browser would open links and allow browsing, but would not integrate too deeply and would focus on security and battery life where updates may not be applied and signal is sometimes terrible.

Just the simplest phone, dirt cheap, durable, capable of communication in an age of WhatsApp.

It would also be a near perfect travel/emergency phone for people in the West, and would likely have a huge market amongst outdoor types.


Since Whatsapp joined Facebook, they are now only interested in ideas that have potential billion dollar upsides. The phone you are suggesting is more likely to be built by an entrepreneur who's eyeing a small but steady business.


Didn't know they'd "joined" FB -- wonder if they're going to federate messaging between their services.


A few weeks ago I left my phone in the office on a Friday evening. I was going to go back for it but decided I'd try the weekend with a dumb £20 samsung lozenge phone for the weekend. It was something of a revelation.

The biggest issue was that I didn't have Whatsapp, either on my phone or on my laptop, as my main phone had shut down and so the keys were offline.

I started searching around for a cheap phone that would run Whatsapp, but they retired all the non-smartphone stuff last year. If someone sold a $50 phone that just had voice, text and Whatsapp I think they would sell a shit-ton, especially in the developing world...


Not sure that would be much better than existing cheap rugged android phones?

Internet.org-like plans haven't exactly gotten much love, and that seems to me like the biggest differentiator Facebook could introduce. (purely business-wise, their brand name of course could help, but that's not much actual merit IMHO)


The demand in India for something like this is evidently there, so you may be on to something. Someone at Facebook better take notes.


The Indian government isn’t on good terms with Facebook due to the failure of the Internet.org experiment (links elsewhere in this thread)


i can't imagine he'll make money on cheap Indian users when he needs a server with terabytes of RAM to serve them but you never know.

i might get blowback for this but I had an Instagram paid service where Indian users were blowing up the free trials and never paying so I just blocked all Indian IPs. more trouble than they're worth


This is why advertising works as a good source of revenue.


And what happens when advertisers realize that they, too, are obviously not going to sell anything to these users ? I mean, isn't this exploiting the market ? (perhaps for a "good" cause but that's a matter of opinion)


These people buy a lot of stuff online, usually through 'cash on delivery'.


Yes. The distance between 1$ and 0$ is waaay bigger than 1$.


This is one of the areas where Telegram is way better than WhatsApp. Actually their web client is totally awesome.


Except every single person in India and their grandmother is on WhatsApp.


Except the ones using the Jio phone, evidently. They seem to have trouble using whatsapp.


Not if they can help it, apparently :/


Well, that's an awesome story. Love the fact you found a way to commercialize your product and find a way to sustain and serve low-money customers.


Just as a note: These cheap Jio phones are not old. They are also not your usual $20 phones. They only work on Reliance Jio. This is unusual because it means they must support LTE and must have a fully IPv6 network stack.


I find it annoying that it's virtually impossible to get such a phone in "the west". I've been looking forever for a phone that enables usb tethering and is not a touch screen. Touch screens sucks when it's cold outside and you are waring gloves, so I need buttons, big buttons.


5 mins on amazon will find you what you are looking for. There are a whole bunch of feature phone and basic carrier/prepaid phones out there. Some of them will also do usb tethering but its a bit difficult to actually set up since it needs obscure drivers. You can also go for the higher end blackberry which still keeps physical keys and runs full blown android.

Even sold by Amazon: Blackberry: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DGYW83E TracPhone: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M3VI4Q6 TracPhone: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B01L2DE1G2


There are tons of cheap phones in Chinese markets. https://www.gearbest.com/unlocked-phone-_gear/c_11293/?odr=l...


Strange security implications he opens himself up to.

He offers an VPN Service / more or less without the proper knowledge.

I think he could be sued for distributing child porn and other things VPN companies take a lot of ressources to make sure they are protected by that stuff.


It sounds like it's going to be difficult to monetize.

It's better to build apps for iOS because those users have the most money and spend the most on apps. Android is further behind but still reasonable... If you're targeting users of some cheap $20 phone, then obviously there won't be much money in it. Plus the cost of running a virtual environment for each of these users would be too high I suspect.

This could be used as a tool for mass social manipulation though. Browserling could transform Instagram feeds into whatever it wants... Could potentially be used to spread fake news and spark protests.


Sure, individually those users don't have a lot of money, but have you considered the population of India? It's pretty large.

Also, basically all those users were at some point able to cough up $20 for a phone. Messaging is pretty important (and WhatsApp is near or at the top of the list), so maybe a lot of those users could manage to cough up another $1 for something.


Why the personal attacks on this CEO? I don't see anything in this article that merits them.


When Jio Phone was announced, I was excited as there was a possibility that FireFox OS (KaiOS) had a chance of gaining significant user base in India. With millions of units sold, it actually has.

But as this article points out, the dependency on WhatsApp in India is too high to ignore; the last I heard was that the effort to bring WhatsApp to Jio Phone failed and the Jio Phone 2 would run on Android.


Looks like it’s okay to treat poor people as slaves and make fun of them, as long as they don’t live in the first world.

Shame on you, “startup enterpreneurs”.


great story, hope Peter does something like an indiehackers.com interview to learn more details about browserling


I wish there was a cheap phone that had huge battery life and ran Calls, SMS, WhatsApp and Signal and that was it. Both are now such an important part of how people communicate to me that it's impossible to ditch a smartphone.

How come no one was built a mobile app that locks down all apps other than those you select (e.g WhatsApp/Signal) for X amount of time until you put a code in or (even better) a partner/friend sends you a code. Would be great for enforce non device time.


> How come no one was built a mobile app that locks down all apps other than those you select (e.g WhatsApp/Signal) for X amount of time until you put a code in or (even better) a partner/friend sends you a code. Would be great for enforce non device time.

Isn't that exactly what the kid-friendly modes of the various mobile OSes do?


this reminds me of what Snaptu was doing years ago to bring access to developing countries... worked out ok for them: https://techcrunch.com/2011/03/20/facebook-reportedly-acquir... Also, this is a great way to bring better comms to millions of people who are likely underserved today.


This seems like a perfect use case for advertising. Need to watch/see ads every 15 minutes for continued use. As long as the ad revenue exceeds operations cost.


But as pointed out elsewhere in this thread, the people who purchase $20 are not likely the type of people who advertisers are interested in, since they don't have much disposable money.

Now if he finds another way to profit off of these users beyond advertising or just spamming twitter, then could be successful.


After reading this I was surprised to see that @browserling only has about 7,500 followers on Twitter. Why aren't there hundreds of thousands?


i don't know if peter or substack reads this but whatever happened to testling? it seems to be down.


Testling's been down for years. It got discontinued. Nothing this convenient came from the competing services.


WhatsApp should invest in clients for feature phones on this markets. If not WhatsApp (with their really really big resources) which other company can make sure that everybody can communicate to eachother no matter if you have a smartphone or feature phone.




What really amazes me in this story is what a powerful force an army of desperate and somewhat ignorant users can be. If they were told to post some memes and fake news or write some troll comments, they would do it without a bat of an eye.


The author's immaturity aside, the buried lede here is the Jio - crazy, I hadn't heard of it. $20 for a phone with LTE, FirefoxOS fork, WiFi and 5 day battery life. I'd buy one for 3x that price!


Do they use a real smartphone to pass the qrcode screen in web whatsapp?


How do I get a dumb phone (simple browser, Java) to access Google hangouts get/send messages? Prepared to make it a (java/rest?) side project. (Son has feature phone).


I am thinking Google Chrome headerless on a pc, and Java2ME rest calls or simple feature phone web browser front end on the phone.


> "It turns out users in India can't easily make online USD purchases with credit or debit cards as it requires a special bank permission."

And people still think Cryptocurrency will not unbank the world. I am not talking only about Bitcoin, but there is a necessity for a new way to exchange value, store value and buy things without the limits that the place where you live decided to impose.


I'm amazed how positive reaction this article gets on HN. This guy is an asshole!

It starts with author calling his users "fools" for not randomizing useragent (while he himself is a fool for not using useragent correct way - to know what hardware/software accesses his service). Then he goes super happy "hah, great, let them crash competitor websites". Then he realize "This is the biggest opportunity ever!". He tries to sell his service for small amount of $1 per day for using free WhatsApp. "I had no idea how much money Indian users spent on online services." Quick google search reveals that daily wage labour gets 2-3 $/day.

What he does next? He sends his users to promote his website at social media. Follow and tweet about my service and I will allow you to use my service - he promises, except it is not a payment method - it's a lie. But free advertisment is not enough for this guy. It's "his biggest opportunity ever"! He sends his army to "troll my competitors". "That was super hilarious. I was literally rolling on the floor laughing."

"users would tweet, follow, like, and do anything I tell them to get access to Browserling" except he didn't let them access Browserling. They are just numbers for him, a viral mob that will do whatever their god tell them to do. And as a god, he doesn't care about his promises. Well, he could, but it's too much work and there are more interesting things to do for him.

His final solution - more lies and unethical behaviors. "Increase your chances in lottery by promoting my service" - chance does not change Depending on your luck, the same amount of money will give you day, week or month of a service.

This guy is an asshole, his behaviour is unethical and wrong. I can't believe it gets positive feedback here.


"It starts with author calling his users "fools" for not randomizing useragent"

He thought he was getting DDOS'd at first, and his attackers were using one useragent. In which case, they would have been fools.

"Then he realize "This is the biggest opportunity ever!"."

It __is__ a great opportunity! For the HN audience, a large influx of users is considered a great opportunity.

"They are just numbers for him, a viral mob that will do whatever their god tell them to do."

There seems to be a lot of negativity around this. I thought it was hilarious. Would there still be outrage if the users were American instead of Indian?

"His final solution - more lies and unethical behaviors"

I would hardly call it lies or unethical. 1. he isn't obligated to do anything 2. he ultimately delivered a usable product with a paid option to the service. Sounds like any other freemium app or in-app-purchase


Let’s try another more illustrative question - what would the reaction be if he were an Indian in India doing that to Indians or doing it to Americans.

There would definitely be outrage.

As other people have said, he comes across as lacking humanity. Especially as the people using Jio phones would be the kind of people who are not rich or well off.

In fairness to the person, he could just be clueless and doesn’t really think of the people trying to use his service as people.

Hmm. That makes him sound worse.

I know a friend who thinks like that, And Is not a bad person....

I don’t know - this guy comes across as if he doesn’t realize that he is manipulating people less informed and weaker than him like someone orchestrating ants into following sugar.


> As other people have said, he comes across as lacking humanity. Especially as the people using Jio phones would be the kind of people who are not rich or well off.

But that doesn't make his server costs go away. And they must own at least another phone otherwise they wouldn't be able to use WhatsApp Web. So they are probably not as poor as you think.


>But that doesn't make his server costs go away

If it were just the opening part of the article which gave me pause, I would agree with you.

But the other parts?

Its very hard, even when I am trying to give him the benefit of doubt, to devise a sufficient and forgiving explanation for his behavior. Unless you just ignore entire chunks of what transpired.

He used those people to troll his competitors. It sounds like someone realized that he could flash a laser, and make a group of camps walk over someone else's flower bed.

Its hard to defend that, and the implication that has for his view on the people he aimed like water from a hose.

For the record, I've put some time into knowing what I know about India, the Indian telecom industry, Jio and Jio pricing. I'll say that my educated guess should be pretty close to the mark, but I will change my position if a contradicting piece of information is shown.


edit: Cats, not camps...


If they own another phone why do they want to access WhatsApp on their cheapo ones so fervently?


That is what puzzles me most in the article. Unless one phone that can handle Whatsapp is used by several people I do not get what they are trying to achieve here. AFAIK Whatsapp Web needs to have a phone online and is not provided as a standalone web service.


Yeah, that's pretty perplexing to me as well.


They could have used some else's phone to setup the account


Maybe it's a cultural thing. If it was an Indian doing it to Americans, I don't see why there would be outrage. It's just a guy promoting his service, which he did eventually deliver. The Taiwan number 1, competitors number eight bit is hilarious. It's a meme and not intended to be political.

"he comes across as lacking humanity. Especially as the people using Jio phones would be the kind of people who are not rich or well off."

Would you say the same about apps that serve video ads in order to unlock something in app? Or contests that requests tweets for entry? Or bootstrapped companies with "buy now" websites that only lead to an email signup?

"he doesn’t realize that he is manipulating people less informed and weaker than him"

Manipulating seems like a strong word. No one was forced to tweet, this isn't a matter of life or death. (It's for getting on WhatsApp after all). More importantly, I don't think anyone that tweeted really cared about the contents of the tweet.


Manipulation is correct. You could try to see how coerce fits and you will find that harder to pin.

Challenges or re-tweet requests are assumed in good faith or in the context of a (relatively) symmetrical/fair market system.

I’m trying to give him good faith and it’s coming up short.

I don’t think he is malicious, just not used to thinking at the scale of humanity he was dealing with.

By the way - this is also an excellent example of how good net neutrality laws help customers.

I am sure JIO would love to block whatsapp.

Actually - how is Jio blocking Whatsapp?

That’s a more important question.


I don't believe the phones have the ability to download the application. They look like early 2000's phones, like after the bricks of the 90's but before the flip phone craze.


In that case reliance should just buy the guy out.

Jio launches a pretty ambitious phone network and decimated the competition.

Do note thought that they are considered to be really bad competitors to go up against. They almost always have a focus on good ultra competitive pricing and ways to extract extra money from the consumer.

But they are very actively investing in broadband content to drive use of their network.


I think no one would care if Americans were doing this to other Americans... seems like just another day on Social Media Marketing.


>Let’s try another more illustrative question - what would the reaction be if he were an Indian in India doing that to Indians or doing it to Americans.

Probably just a lot of people shrugging and saying "I guess this guy doesn't want us abusing his free service for our own gain" and "it was fun while it lasted".

All indications pointed towards all these people using his service in bad faith. I went to his website and it's obviously meant for cross-browser testing, not spoofing your user agent, circumventing regional restrictions or whatever it was preventing them from accessing Whatsapp directly.


Jio phones appear to run a mobile OS that is not supported by whatsapp. Effectively they are using his server to host the whatsapp instance and then only deal with the very front end of the whatsapp code natively.


I tried bringing up an Android VM and see if I could escape the web browser and get to an app store, but couldn't, at least not by doing anything more than just poking around with the mouse (if the Indians in question had the know-how to do something more intrusive I doubt they would need Browserly to circumvent the restriction in the first place). And it would be strange if Browserly would allow the browser to be escaped and software to be installed, it's practically asking for his service to be abused.

So I'm pretty sure what they want is to access the Whatsapp web interface and use Browserly for user agent spoofing, circumventing geographic blocking or some kind of blocking on their phones like a 0.0.0.0 entry for whatsapp.com in the hosts file. Either way it's a major dick move if you ask me, especially when there is no shortage of services built for this exact purpose.


> Would there still be outrage if the users were American instead of Indian?

This is exactly the point. There would only be outrage if the users were American. There would not be a positive response here.


> I thought it was hilarious. Would there still be outrage if the users were American instead of Indian?

Imagine French facebook users waking up one day to see "If you want to log in, tweet 'I love facebook`". Would there be an outrage? What if tweet would say "Macron is not my president #downwithmacron"?


I Ctrl-F'ed the whole article, the word "fool" only appeared within the sentence: "I throught these attackers were fools".

So I think

> It starts with author calling his users "fools" for not randomizing useragent

Was not very true, given the author previously said:

> I thought it was a DDOS attack. I noticed everyone had this weird user agent that said it was a JIO phone. _I throught these attackers were fools_.


I’ve known this guy for years and he’s far from an asshole.

He’s spent years on this business and finally had a break. Its unfortunate he chose to phrase things the way he did but this is a one man band with a hacker as CEO who does PR about as well as an average PR person does full stack development.


> I’ve known this guy for years and he’s far from an asshole.

Probably not to his friends. But rofling at masses of indians tweeting on command (fooled into thinking tweeting will unlock a service) is a "dick move".


Anyone know what happened to the cofounder's involvement? Last mention I found was from 2014, it seems that substack is in Hawaii now doing his own thing.


Yeah who owns this nowadays? I can’t imagine the author of this was substack. Though I don’t know the guy...


I take your word for that, but it is not an excuse to disconnect users/numbers/visits from real human beings. So you see that people in India are using a 20$ phone to use whatsapp with your app and the only thing that comes to your mind is how can you rip them off with a daily subscription that wasn't there before? And a crooked lottery?!?! You need to have a very small amount of empathy to do that.


Those server costs do not pay for themselves. Me personally, I’d likely just block them altogether.


"I'm sorry, I can't support this use case so I'm blocking Jio phones" is fine. "You have to pay for this service" is fine. "Please tweet to use the service" is fine.

Saying "please tweet to use the service" and then blocking people anyway is lying. Making fun of people for doing what you asked so they can fulfill one of their needs is scummy. Telling people to Tweet to increase their chances in a lottery and then not actually doing it is also scummy.


A feeble attempt at offsetting the cost of massive server load is not trying to "rip them off."


I know this guy. He's not an asshole. But I do think this could of used more research and slightly less trolling. However I think it's pretty funny in a way. Overnight you think your site is being hacked, to be suprised it got popular! So I can see why it would need to be monetized as it was really meant just for web developers. And since web developers are a smaller market than everyone in a entire country trying to use it to use a chat app, it had to scale to cope with the overnight unexpended demand.


In the author's defence, it sounds like these users were creating an existential threat to his service by using it in unintended ways. It's kind of expensive for the author to run virtual machines for all these people. Though the author tries to add a positive spin to this, I'm sure that the story is more complicated.


I completely fail to understand how that's a defense. Whether you're an asshole or not is exactly defined by your reaction to similar situations. The author talked down to people who wanted to use his service and treated them like toys even after he found out they didn't mean him harm.

This post left me with nothing but bad impressions for the author and for Browserling. At some point I wonder whether a middle school bully was writing the post.


I understand that it's corporate etiquette to be a smiling doormat when faced with free riders abusing your services, to politely apologise for not being able to take the pain, but it doesn't mean you're an asshole if you don't act that way.

The vast majority of these users were looking for a shady freebie at his expense, gleefully ripping him off and doing so en masse in a way that would destroy his livelihood. They were being more than cheeky and he has a right to treat them the same way. If it were me I'd have had my fun too.


> but it doesn't mean you're an asshole if you don't act that way.

No, if you lie to people and tell them you'll give them service in exchange for something, they do the something and then you don't give them service, you are definitely an asshole.

I'm not a fan of the false dichotomy of "you're either a doormat or you go full-blast lying and making fun of your users". He could just have said "If you want to use the service, please pay for it per day" and that would have been that.

> The vast majority of these users were looking for a shady freebie at his expense, gleefully ripping him off

Wanting to access WhatsApp is shady? Then I'm shady all the damn day. Also, how were they ripping him off? They were using the service he provided on the terms he provided it, even jumping through pointless hoops of "Tweet/Follow/spam competitors".

We decry all those shitty "tweet to jump the queue" tactics, but this guy doing it and laughing at his users makes it okay?

> And they did! All these users started following Browserling and tweeting about it. But they still couldn't use Browserling or Whatsapp, it was just a new message in place of "fatal error".

If you don't think this is asshole behaviour, we're never going to agree.


In the end he did provide access. So what matters is what he had really thought of it all when he asked them to tweet.

If that was "okay, there is a demand, I can't monetize it but can still convert it into something useful while I think how this can be a successful business" is one thing. Telling users to fund/tweet/support/whatever while the problem is being tackled feels perfectly fair to me.

If that was "muahaha see my army of puppets tweeting" it's another thing, of course.


Have you told your sales people that they are assholes for telling your future customers about services that do not quite exist or do not quite work?

Have you told that to your CEO?


If our salespeople or CEO say "here, sign up and invite three friends to get our service" and then say "Haha psych! You can't actually get our service, sucker", then yes, I will tell them they're assholes.

Unfortunately I haven't had that chance, as the people I work with already know to not be assholes.


Are you telling me your sales person does not say "XYZ feature works" when it does not quite work as it was spec'ed? Please. Let's live in a real world.


Do you understand the difference between "tweet to access" and then purposely banning access and having a buggy feature? He told them they could use the service when they couldn't. The service wasn't buggy, he actively banned them, told them he would unban them if they did X, and then kept them banned.

If you still think that's okay, there's a fundamental disagreement here we'll never reconcile.


It is exactly the same as selling a product with a known broken or non-existent feature. But hey, it is HN - selective ethics is an art form.


It's not really a defense, but maybe an explanation.

When people spend a lot of time looking at stats, sometimes they become disconnected from the reality behind them.


Is it really the interesting thing you see in that article ? The moral aspect of it ? Nobody got hurt, nobody got ripped off, the service was provided for free to people that needed it, until he found a proper price.

And it will probably give ideas to people on HN to build services for this new market, and get Silicon Valley hipsters interested in cheap phone market. I'm not in SV, but at least that's the effect it had on me.

I'm getting more and more allergic to moral hypersensitivity everywhere. The air is becoming unbreathable.


I was thinking exactly the same thing! He is ripping them off and abusing the users.


I think some of the things done here are in poor taste but I think overall he's coming out net positive impact on the world. Providing a good service for poor people in India and the Cameroon to communicate.


I think you misread some of it. The bit about trolling / rolling on the floor was definitely in bad taste and indicates either a lack of empathy, or just poor judgement.

In the end, though, I think he's done something decent-- providing a way for poor people in India to access a service that they are normally unable to afford. That's a good thing.


Honestly, Whatsapp will just find a way to block him. At that point he's got paying customers that won't have service. Let's see how he handles that...


Why would Whatsapp block him. On the contrary, he is providing Whatsapp access to all these Indian users of $20 of Jio phones. I believe it is Jio that is blocking access to Whatsapp (maybe Jio wants their customers to use Jio's own messaging app).


I don't know anything about Browserling service, but it seems it renders web page in Chome and somehow streams interactive version of page to any browser? If so, then it's huge breach of privacy for Whatsapp users. The service can read, modify and inject content. Scary.


WhatsApp should just buy him :-)


The phone mentioned in the article is a $20 feature phone that runs a fork of FirefoxOS. It's not Jio that's blocking the app, just that it's not available on the platform.


From what I can tell, all that Browserling is doing is allowing you to browse as if you were on another browser, and the Indian users are simply wanting to access the Whatsapp web app (https://web.whatsapp.com/). That must mean that Jio is somehow preventing its users from fully using that webapp. Doesn't matter that there isn't a native Whatsapp app in FirefoxOS.


Whatsapp is doing the blocking. See for example the problems that Vivaldi browser has had

https://twitter.com/vivaldibrowser/status/644173304404836352...


Perhaps Whatsapp web doesn't support the browser on the phone, rather than some conspiracy to block it?


Whatsapp Web on the phone sounds a bit pointless, because it's not really whatsapp web, it's just a frontend for the mobile app (if you lose connection on your phone, you lose connection on Whatsapp Web).


That's probably it. Still my second point that he is actually helping out Whatsapp stands.


^ this.

I discovered Browserling just yesterday looking for a replacement for BrowserStack. I planned to hand over my credit card today but saw this blog post on the commute to the office. Thanks, but no. I'll continue looking and make sure to not make business with this guy.


Kindly also read this article before deciding -- [http://www.catonmat.net/blog/browserling-cameroon/]. I know the current article seems a bit tone-deaf but judging him on that alone wouldn't be fair.


Thank you. You're right of course, juding him by one article alone isn't fair.


"unethical and wrong" is subjective. The most successful companies like Facebook and Google have been similarly called "unethical and wrong" for their practices. But alternatively it could be argued that their net utility on humanity is positive. So a lot depends on the definitions of "unethical" and "wrong", and that is a deeper philosophical question.


> it could be argued that their net utility on humanity is positive

It could also be argued that their net utility to humanity is negative: see the issues with social media and echo chambers.


The pro and con sides could both be argued. That just goes to my original point that "ethical" and "wrong" are subjective determinations here.


I've worked together with the author of this post. He's the kindest and most helpful person I know. He's a bit of a prankster but definitely not an asshole. See his next post about Cameroon (http://www.catonmat.net/blog/browserling-cameroon/) or donating portion of his revenue to open-source developers (http://www.catonmat.net/blog/browserling-supports-open-sourc...).


There are hundreds of companies letting you using their services for "free" because they resell your informations.

He did a silly test to have some fun that didn't force the users.

I'm happy for once to read an article that is not heavily edited by marketing to please the sensitive readers but instead gives us the raw reactions of the guy.


I think the word is sociopath. He's not necessarily malicious, he just doesn't seem to empathize with other people, they're just autonomous NPCs to him.


> His final solution

Not sure if intentional, but funny either way :)


Agreed, he is an asshole and this is an unethical way to monetize


What is he supposed to do?

His initial reaction when he thought he was under attack was fine and the second reaction was immature and lacked empathy but he was likely facing an unexpected problem that he couldn't figure out how to handle but very soon got on the right track.

Those servers and bandwidth aren't free. Bandwidth to tier three countries is actually more expensive.

Advertising revenue is basically non-existent for tier three countries, conversion rates and LTV is super low, ltv for the group of user that are using his service for whatsapp will be in the range of 1-5 Rs, ~(1-8 cents).

He will eventually have to block these countries again if he can't figure out a way to indirectly monetize these users. Or he will run out of money and the servers go down.

The best thing for these users would be if he can figure out a way to make it sustainable, and that means to monetize these users.


What about his monetization is unethical? Where is the moral conflict?


Amazing read


I agree.

I can only think the negative components are ironically from the readers who lack the empathy to understand what OP was going through - both his limited understanding of what was happening and the implications.

Most importantly, I appreciated the honest writeup - something quite rare these days.


It interests me that the author treats his Indian users more like some sort of "human botnet" than like real people. I feel like it fits nicely with YC's favourite interview question, "When have you most successfully hacked a non-computer system to your advantage?", which in my mind neatly translates to "what's the most psychopathic thing you've ever done?". If that question is the success predictor YC says it is, Browserling probably has a great future.


I was surprised to see that at no point in the article does the author express any appreciation at the opportunity his service seems to have given its new users. There is no step between hating the situation because of its cost to accepting it because of its potential revenue. I get that the author is acting as an economically reasonable agent but the lack of humanity is jarring.


You’re the one showing a lack of humanity by judging him based on a single blog post.


I found the article pretty distasteful, too. I wonder if he would treat the users with so little respect if they were from a rich white country.


"When have you most successfully hacked a non-computer system to your advantage?", which in my mind neatly translates to "what's the most psychopathic thing you've ever done?"

If this is a correct translation, YC would be using it as a no-invest signal more than anything else, given how much the two original founders have talked about the importance of good character and decency in being a successful founder:

http://foundersatwork.posthaven.com/the-social-radar-what-i-...

http://www.paulgraham.com/mean.html

http://www.paulgraham.com/good.html


I disagree. The best answers to "what's the most psychopathic thing you've ever done?" are probably "a little bit psychopathic but remarkably effective". Not totally unlike treating thousands of lower class Indians as human social media bots instead of people with needs, maybe.

I'm not trying to criticize YC here, not by much at least. I like YC and we even interviewed with them once. I don't know what kinds of answers they get or expect to that question, but I suspect that "hacking a non-computer system to your advantage" has only two categories of good answers, one being hacking a bureaucracy (which, let's admit it, is more like hacking a computer than anything else). The one is hacking people which feels a little bit psychopathic to me no matter how you put it.


Terms like "psychopathic" and "sociopathic" are technical terms with meanings that have serious implications in medical and criminal contexts. They shouldn't be bandied around so casually.

I've done YC. I've met and closely observed many of the founders of the most successful companies, including the ones who are most revered for their ability to hack non-computer systems to their advantage.

Their behaviour is not remotely psychopathic, which very specifically means to act without any concern about causing harm to others.

To the contrary, these people stand out for their willingness to help others and create outcomes of mutual benefit.

I think this is where you're getting it wrong: you're taking a zero-sum-game approach, in which for someone to gain, someone else has to lose.

But good business (and good social hacking) doesn't work this way; it is all about creating win-win outcomes, by identifying and removing inefficiency and waste, or creating new opportunities for people to live more productive and enjoyable lives.

If you're interested in understanding this more deeply, I strongly recommend listening to this EconTalk podcast episode [1], particularly the story of the Padre.

For what it's worth, when I reflect on my own stint at running a YC-funded startup (which had a moderately successful outcome but not any kind of home run), I can recognise that one of my biggest failings was being too narcissistic. Since recognising this and spending several years working this tendency out of my character, my career success has improved dramatically.

I can also look back on a time in my life when I looked at some people who were more successful than me and assessed them as being a "psychopath", but it's clear to me now that I was just avoiding doing the self-scrutiny I should have been doing in order to become a successful (and good) person myself.

None of this is to defend the Browserling guy's conduct, which does seem rather ugly to me.

But psychopathic?

I'd really urge you to use terms like that with great caution and some self-reflection.

[1] http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/12/munger_on_profi.htm...


> I'd really urge you to use terms like that with great caution and some self-reflection.

I appreciate your comment and I think you're right.


Good on you, thanks for the reply.


So entertaining on many levels


This gets blocked on WhatsApp end in 3, 2, 1...


I never understand this 3, 2, 1 comments I see often on reddit ... and on HN ... what do they mean? Is something from the US television?


I think so (I'm not from the US), it's in the TV Tropes set: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThreeTwoOne.


It's more like a countdown to tell how quickly something is going to happen. In this case whatsapp blocking browserling.


And is the countdown supposed to make the comment funnier or what? I was supposing a joke from a tv show or something else I don’t get.


The countdown simply means “quickly”, “in no time” or “very soon”. You can read the comment as “This gets blocked on WhatsApp’s end very soon.”


no, it isn't a reference to a specific thing.


Why would it? It seems like lots of additional WhatsApp users, but they don't need to support a shitty phone.


This guy has access to all of WhatsApp credentials that flow through his virtual browser.


I don't see why WhatsApp would want to block...rather it is the Jio phone company that sees this as a threat to Jio's own messaging app.


Do you really think WhatsApp doesn't work on phones like Jio because WhatsApp doesnt has enough capabilitys to support it ? WhatsApp actively blocks phone models that doesn't fit in their needs. WhatsApps first priority is blocking chat-/spambots, because they are only making money with selling access for companies. To enchant the bot detection, the WhatsApp API needs to get more and more complex. If a older or cheaper phone doesn't support the complex API anymore, botblocking is more important than backwards compability. It follows that great tools like the Matrix bridge never will working with WhatsApp.


I don't know for sure why it doesn't work on Jio phones. What you said makes sense, though.

WhatsApp should be able to figure out a way to perform human user detection on these cheap phones. What type of API does FirefoxOS lack?




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