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Facebook adapts for Indian masses

From Harvard University's elite social clubs to the hinterland of India is a big leap. But Facebook Inc, the company that runs the world's hottest social network, is finally waking up to the potential of India in an aggressive push to grow its presence in the country. N Madhavan reports.

india Updated: May 16, 2011 02:49 IST
N Madhavan

From Harvard University's elite social clubs to the hinterland of India is a big leap. But Facebook Inc, the company that runs the world's hottest social network, is finally waking up to the potential of India in an aggressive push to grow its presence in the country.

And, taking a leaf out of familiar US brands such as McDonald's and Domino's Pizza, it is adapting a Western lifestyle statement into a mass Indian phenomenon by tweaking its services and partnerships to suit local tastes and budgets.

It is developing software that will take Facebook - on which users share messages, links, music and videos - to cheaper handsets. Right now, it has 25 million active users in India in a nation of 1.2 billion people.

"It is just 2% of the population," Javier Olivan, director of international growth at Facebook told Hindustan Times in an interview. "We have so much work ahead."

Last August, international research firm comScore, and local firm Vizisense estimated that Facebook had about 22 million unique users in India, when it overook Google-owned Orkut, with 18.5 million. Facebook has not looked back since then.

Aided by Indian-born Meenal J Balar, Olivan, a Spaniard who at 33 is a senior by the youthful standards of its founder CEO Mark Zuckerburg, who turned 27 on Saturday.

Facebook is working on two fronts for India - enabling the site's interface for cheaper "feature phones" that are not smartphones and promoting the use of Facebook among content providers through partnerships.

Balar said after an initial phase where the company focused on segments such as Bollywood and news, it was now an open platform for content producers.

"Publishers are now using it creatively on their own," she said.

"We started putting people on the ground to localize the product. We want to grow it to the next big thing now, which is the mobile," Olivan said. "We are trying to work with the operators so that users can have a low-price plan."

Last week, market research firm Nielsen in a study conducted with AbsoluData said that social media in India was growing at 100 % per annum and is expected to touch 45 million users by 2012, up from the current 30 million. Notably, the study said that Indians were spending more time on social networks than on personal e-mail.

The secret sauce for Facebook is its acquisition of Snaptu, an Israeli technology company with software that converts browser-based content on the site to offer messages and pictures to lower-level handsets. Also, Facebook is increasingly enabled for Indian languages. With 800 million mobile connections on the last count in the country, feature phones can drive explosive growth.

'We are going to build on top of Snaptu to build the Facebook experience on every phone. We expect to have something in the next couple of months," Olivan said.

While Facebook has a back-office in Hyderabad where dozens of people do auxiliary service work, the core technology to help hundreds millions of Indians take to Facebook is being developed at the company's global technology hub.

"We have a team in Palo Alto waking around with MicroMax devices," said Balar, talking of how the company was tapping cheaper handset brands.

Facebook is as yet relying on advertising revenues and much of the focus is on increasing the number of users in India and build the "social graph" -a web of sharing relationships on the Net.

Olivan said he would not take a guess on where Facebook was heading in India. "When you are dealing with viral exponential growth, it is difficult to predict."