Alphabet Inc’s Google is ready to spend billions to get millions of Indians online– through a slew of India-specific products and initiatives – to stay relevant in the world’s fastest-growing internet economy.
With 350-million internet users, India has already surpassed the US, and the number is expected to double by 2020. Around 15,000 new Indians log onto the internet every day, fitting perfectly in Google’s scheme of the “next billion internet users” gambit to acquire new customers.
But this wasn’t the case three years ago, not until smartphones burgeoned and a large number of people started accessing the Net through their phones.
All that makes India more important for Google, especially after China, which has the maximum number of internet users globally, closed its doors the American internet firm.
“There are very few countries in the world where there are a billion people... If you have a mission to connect the world, you have to go where the people are,” says Rajan Anandan, Google’s vice-president and managing director for Southeast Asia and India.
Very few know that Anandan was born in Sri Lanka, and is the son of Guinness World Records holder (in swimming) VS Kumar Anandan, who died while crossing the English Channel on August 6, 1984.
Anandan knows India well. He was responsible for building Microsoft’s internet and cloud business in the country before joining Google.
India is different from every other country Google operates in – it has different languages, a large non-English speaking population, low-income groups, patchy mobile network and a diverse culture.
Anandan decided to take up one problem at a time. “We identified the barriers and systematically went after each one of them,” he says.
In villages, only one out of every 10 women uses the internet. Also, only 35% of internet users in India are women.
So Anandan launched “Internet Saathi”, a programme to train women in 300,000 villages –almost half of India’s total number of villages – on how to use the internet to improve their lives, in partnership with Tata Trusts.
Google has 9,000 women Saathis (friends), who have already trained a million women, who now use the internet to see weather forecasts, agri-product prices, farm practices, and news about healthcare and child education.
Access was another hurdle, Internet being a novelty still for most. So Google introduced Railtel -- an initiative to provide free Wifi at 400 railway stations by 2020. The programme has already been implemented in 53 stations, and already 3.5-million people have used the network.
The search giant then launched Station, wifi for any venue – bus station, hotel, or café – as long as the place has wired internet connectivity. Google will provide the wifi equipment, and work out a shared-revenue model.
But the masterstroke was probably its adoption of the Hindi language. The recent advertisements, in Hindi, based on the lives of middle-class Indians and their requirements are a huge change from what the Google did a couple of years ago.
One ad shows a 50-year-old lady talking to her phone in Hindi, to search the internet. “The biggest problem was language search,” says Anandan.
Two years ago, the Hindi keyboard on Android didn’t work properly. Anandan had to fix the problem; after all, only 200 users could use the internet in English. The result: Now the Google keyboard has 11 languages.
So now, even Google Assistant, the artificial intelligence software that can take voice commands, is available in Hindi. It will soon come integrated with the Allo instant messaging app. The Assistant is being trained, like humans, to understand and respond to queries raised in Hindi.
“It is important for them to localise, else they will lose to local competition, especially since Facebook is right there… They cannot win in India without their operating system supporting Indian languages,” says Neil Shah, research director at Honk Kong-headquartered Counterpoint Research.
But Google did not stop at localising. Anandan realised that networks were patchy, people didn’t spend much on browsing, and smartphones did not have enough space for apps. So he re-engineered some apps to make them work offline. For example, Youtube allows you to download videos in wifi networks and watch those unlimited times; maps can be accessed without the web; you can bookmark your entire search on the Chrome browser, and even take them taken offline to browse.
There is also Search Lite, which detects the quality of network, adjusts the size of the pages, and removes pictures and videos if needed. There is also Youtube Go, a separate app that works offline. Google also re-engineered the apps to make them smaller, since cheaper smartphones usually don’t have much storage. “It is driven by these needs… These are emerging market products,” says Anandan.
But there’s also a flipside to all these.
India does not have privacy regulations, which makes it a great testing ground for products. Companies can collect tons of data and target ads – incidentally, Google’s main business.
“While Google has done some good stuff, its main interest is to collect data,” says Sanchit Vir Gogia, CEO and chief analyst of Greyhound Research. “Earlier, they were reading your emails, now they have started seeing where you go (Maps). With Google Home, the microphone is always on, they can even listen you all the time.”
Others, too, echo Gogia’s thoughts.
“The lack of a policy is helpful (to collect data) but mobile adoption has helped it more,” says Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research.
Meanwhile, Anandan has set himself an ambitious goal – to get 20-million small and medium businesses online. Three years ago, only 100,000 businesses in India had web presence in some form or the other. “There is no point getting one or two million businesses online... In 10 minutes you can have a web presence. It is completely free, and there is no hosting cost unlike a website,” he says.
All this requires a lot of money.
“It does… We are not focussed on the near term, but 10 years from now India is going to be massive… What we are doing has nothing to do with advertising revenue… But eventually, of course… so that is why it is not a one or two-year thing,” says Anandan as he signs off.