Russia’s Internet services giant Mail.ru may currently be wrangling back home over what will happen next at the popular social network Vkontakte, of which it is a 52 percent shareholder (more on that below). But step outside of that fustercluck, and the company continues to ramp up its strategy to break into markets outside of Russo-phonic territories.
The latest move in that camp comes today from My.com, the portal that Mail.ru launched last year with mobile chat, mail and casual gaming apps. Today, it’s expanding the range of services with @my.com, a mobile-only email domain that will let users sign up and use it without a password, bolstered with 150 gigabytes of storage and simple push notifications to create a kind of IM-like experience.
@my.com will be included as part of my.com’s MyMail app — an iOS and Android app originally launched as a way for people to manage multiple email accounts across services like Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook.com and AOL. It comes on the heels of the company also recently ramping up the gaming content on My.com, as well.
In an interview, Dmitry Grishin, the CEO of Mail.ru, would not tell me how many active users that app has at the moment, but he does say, citing stats from the app research firm Distimo, that it’s surpassed several other popular mail apps in terms of downloads. Those apps, he says, include both Mailbox (that virally buzzy email app eventually acquired by Dropbox) and Sparrow.
The lack of password, Grishin tells me, is the company’s way of tapping into a feature that has been used to great effect by other mobile apps like WhatsApp. In effect, when you sign up, you are sent an SMS message to verify yourself on your phone. Once you do that, you effectively unlock the app for good. (The only catch is that you have to make sure your phone remains secured.)
Grishin says that Mail.ru’s research has demonstrated that, in fact, passwords are clumsy on mobile and not particularly secure.
“From our experience in Russia having passwords in mobile apps is a huge issue for users because of how easy it is for hackers to steal passwords or obtain them with a fake email [phishing],” he says. “We found if you remove the legacy of using a password you can create a completely new product.” By that, he means that while passwords may appeal to an older generation of users, creating a product that uses no password will appeal to a younger demographic, he says.
As with other apps that are based around SMS-based keys, users can add more devices by entering more phone numbers for your profile and activating each device through the SMS that is sent. “If someone tries to have access from another phone, you receive a message immediately,” he says. Unlike many of those other apps, @my.com emails are not in a walled garden and can be used to send notes and receive notes from anyone else.
Grishin says that 25 percent of the current audience for MyMail is coming from the U.S., with the U.K. behind that, followed by Canada, France and Spain. Interestingly, less than 0.4 percent of users are in Russia, possibly because Mail.ru has already saturated that market with its existing, Russian-language services.
“We are fully focused on the U.S. market and have no plans to promote the Russian version of MyMail,” he says. Interestingly, that focus comes at the same time that the company has disclosed that it has sold off 14.2 million shares (0.55 percent of its total) in Facebook, equivalent to about 17.4 million roubles ($488,000).
This is part of a bigger growth story for the company.
“Historically we were focused on the Russian market where we have more than 100 million users, but we think that long term all products are moving to mobile,” he says. “We think that country-specific products have become less relevant, with marketplaces like Apple’s App Store and Google Play making it easier, for example, for developers from Germany to enter the Indian market.”
And he believes that not only is it easier, but the changes for success are significantly higher.
“Just remember that Supercell” — the hugely successful mobile gaming company — “is not from America.”
There is another bigger corporate reason for Mail.ru to focus internationally, which is that it keeps its own engineers raising their game. “We have a really strong team here in Russia and we’re competitive here in the Russian market, but to motivate our team we need to fight with the best guys. And the best are in America.”
The push for Mail.ru internationally comes at an interesting time for the company domestically. Since I had Grishin’s ear, I had to take the opportunity to ask him about Vkontakte, the “Facebook of Russia” in which Mail.ru has around a 52 percent share, which has been the subject of a wave of news after its founder and CEO Pavel Durov claims he was ousted after resisting pressure from the government to restrict political content on the site.
To be clear, Mail.ru is a shareholder in the company, but has not had operational control — a position that it appears Mail.ru has been using as a defense for staying out of the mess and refusing to comment directly on any of the allegations one way or the other.
“I can say for me that VK.com was always an independent company,” Grishin says. “I don’t know what happened and what he did. It’s difficult to connect and have any kind of information. As shareholders we would be very happy for him to be involved, but it’s his decision.”
Whatever happens next “will be the decision of all the shareholders,” he says. Right now the task is to keep things running smoothly and find a new CEO.
“At the current stage it’s important to have good operations, and important to have a full team and make a product for users,” he says. “Right now, nothing changes.”
“Right now” could also be a hint that something might be different later, such as either a sale of its shares, or a full acquisition of those belonging to United Capital Partners. Not clear yet, says Grishin. “For us it depends on the prices and circumstances. If it’s a good price potentially it can be discussable.”
What is clear is that whatever happens with VK, it seems like Mail.ru’s intention is to keep the product, and the news around it, as un-international as possible. “VK.com is a very Russian-focused product,” he says. “Fundamentally you need a team who can start to design products for an international and global market.”
Durov has been making bold statements about what his ejection from VK.com means for Internet entrepreneurship in Russia in general. Asked for his response, Grishin is predictably defensive, or perhaps a little guarded in how he responds.
“We are doing business in Russia right now, Yandex is doing business, Kaspersky is doing business, and so are others,” he says. “Of course, government regulation is always changing, but what I see is that it’s happening all over the world. How all of that will work together we don’t know yet. Will regulation be country specific or global? If you have users in Russia, servers in America but a company registered in China, how does that work? Is the case with Snowden good or bad?”
My.com’s servers, for the record, are in Amsterdam.