Over a billion people in India are still unconnected to the internet. For Silicon Valley giants, that number represents one thing: opportunity. Facebook wants to connect them through its controversial Free Basics (formerly Internet.org) platform. Google wants to do it through programs like Project Loon, a network of high-altitude, internet-beaming balloons, that has ruffled regulatory feathers in the country. The idea is simple: if more people come online (and use Facebook and Google as a result), the more advertising revenues these companies will generate. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already visited India twice in the last 12 months to drive this agenda. Now, it’s the turn of Google’s Chennai-born CEO Sundar Pichai.
Pichai, who became Google’s top boss in August after the company became part of a larger firm known as Alphabet Inc, will visit New Delhi on December 16, along with eight Google vice-presidents. Pichai will deliver a keynote on Wednesday morning at New Delhi’s Pullman hotel. Later that day, he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and telecommunications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, sources told Hindustan Times. Pichai will also interact with students at an event at New Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce on Thursday.
“The timing is just right to do a land grab,” a Google product director-turned-venture capitalist Keval Desai told the Wall Street Journal. “If Google can win in India, it would be a huge benefit to (the company’s) future financial health and strategy.”
That makes sense. Since Pichai met Modi in Silicon Valley in September, the company has announced a number of India-specific initiatives like providing free WiFi at 400 railway stations in the country, letting users type in 11 Indian languages on their phones and allowing them to download YouTube videos and watch them offline.
Google’s biggest product in India — Android — however, is one that doesn’t make it any money directly. According to data from market research firm Counterpoint, Android, which mobile companies can use freely on their devices, runs on 94% of smartphones in the country. That’s impressive, but smartphones themselves account for 44% of all the phones used in the country, according to statistics portal Statista.
“Google wants to make sure, therefore, that the millions of people still using feature phones use smartphones,” says Tarun Pathak, senior mobile devices and ecosystems analyst at market research firm Counterpoint. “That’s the primary way they will come online.”
Google has already tried this. Last year, Pichai visited India to launch Android One, a program in which the world’s largest search engine partnered with Indian handset makers Spice, Micromax and Karbonn (and later Lava) to sell low-cost $100 devices that ran the latest version of Android. The Android One phones supported seven Indian languages out of the box, including for dictation and voice commands. They also feature local news publications and magazines in the Google Play Newsstand.
Android One eventually rolled out in 11 countries, but it never really took off. Google sold about 3 million Android One phones in all but negligible compared to the growth of Android around the world.
Google is tight-lipped about plans to reboot Android One, but if they want it to succeed, “they need to scale down from $100 phones to $50 phones,” says Pathak.
Google has also been silent on net neutrality, a polarising issue that has been the subject of fierce debate in India this year. Google supports net neutrality in the United States but it hasn’t said that publicly in India. In fact, a report in the Economic Times revealed that the company was planning to roll out its own Free Basics-like zero-rated service in India, which it put on the back-burner after seeing the backlash against Facebook’s Internet.org.
Wednesday’s keynote, in the light of this, will be significant. Pichai and his army of vice-presidents — which includes VPs for Search, YouTube, Maps, and Android among others — are expected to make major announcements that will have far-reaching implications for both the company and the country, and a billion unconnected Indians.
(Additional reporting by Sanshey Biswas)