Leaving a missed call on someone’s phone usually indicates that you should call them back, but at one point in India, it was a communication in its own right. A new feature of Atul Bhattarai in Rest of the world examines the Indian culture that developed around missed calls and the startups that took advantage of it.
In basic terms, a “missed call” means dialing a person but hanging up before they can answer. Hang up without speaking allows users to send a basic message (“I called”) without being charged for minutes or SMS messages, such as calling someone without a pager. Bhattarai focuses on ZipDial, a company that turned missed calls into a strong advertising business and a way to experience some of the features of life online without paying for data.
As Bhattarai writes, the use of missed calls to communicate arose due to the high cost of cell phone data and limited access to high-speed internet. Calling long enough to connect to someone else’s phone and then hanging up or not answering on the other end prevented you from being charged for the call. These missed calls can mean a variety of things, like letting a friend know you’re on the way or letting a loved one know that you miss them. “The fact that the missed call required only basic numerical skills made it accessible to the illiterate third of India’s population,” Bhattarai explains.
ZipDial combined the trend of missed calls and pre-existing SMS services into a kind of one-stop shop for mobile phone owners who wanted basic internet functionality. ZipDial would partner with a brand and establish a hotline that people could call for services like sports scores or celebrity tweets. All it took was to “sign in” with a missed call.
Bhattarai also highlights a proto-Spotify algorithmic playlist service called Kan Khajura, which delivered new music in 15-minute calls. “The central appeal of Kan Khajura was that it could be accessed anywhere and anytime, unlike on radio and television,” Bhattarai writes.
Those businesses became unsustainable as mobile data got cheaper and ZipDial stopped operating in 2016. But Bhattarai argues that the services helped bridge the gap online and offline in a period before service providers of the Internet and the physical infrastructure were brought up to date.
You can read the full feature on ZipDial’s Missed Call Empire at Rest of the world.