Google missed out on China. Can it flourish in India?

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- VINDU GOEL, JODHPUR (INDIA)

Dec 6, 2017-

Every month, about four million more Indians get online. They include people like Manju, a 35-year-old seamstress in this city of ancient palaces, who got her first internet phone last week.

“It’s necessary for me to learn new things,” said Manju, who uses only one name. She was so thrilled to discover YouTube and other streaming video services that she quickly burned through her monthly data plan. Now her phone carrier, Reliance Jio, has relegated her to a trickle of low-speed data until next month, when her plan resets.

“It’s all finished,” she complained on Monday when a Google researcher came to visit to ask about her online habits.

Google, which missed out on the rise of the internet in China, is determined not to make the same mistake in India. It has marshaled some of its best developers, designers and researchers to figure out how to adapt or completely rethink products like YouTube to serve the needs of mobile internet users with smaller budgets but big aspirations.

Many of the world’s biggest tech companies—Facebook, Google and Amazon from the United States, and Alibaba and Tencent from China—are competing with local businesses like Reliance, Flipkart and Paytm to win their loyalties. With 1.3 billion people, only one-third of whom are currently online, India has huge moneymaking potential for the services that secure a foothold.

At an event on Tuesday in New Delhi, Google unveiled its most ambitious India-focused product so far—a new version of its Android operating system and related apps designed for low-end smartphones. 

The package will include YouTube Go, which allows users to easily download and share videos with their friends, and Google Go, a variant of its search engine that helps users find information by tapping the smartphone screen instead of typing a query.

“We have to figure out how to build the right products for them,” said Caesar Sengupta, the Google vice president who oversees Next Billion Users, its unit dedicated to creating products for emerging markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia. “This is a very high priority for Google.”

Many of the new Indian users have basic phones, which make it difficult for them to run certain apps or to store big files like videos. Data plans are limited, and despite a telecom price war that has cut the price of a megabyte of data by as much as 97 percent, some customers are unable to afford more data when they run out.

Google’s Android software and apps like the Chrome browser, Maps and YouTube are often included with smartphones. But Facebook also makes products that vie for the attention of Indian consumers and advertisers.

In fact, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram—all Facebook products—occupied three of the top six spots this year when the research firm App Annie measured how Indians spent their time online.

Arjun Vishwanathan, associate director of emerging technologies at IDC India, said that search, Google’s core expertise, was “culturally not that important to Indians.”

“Where Google scores is its ability to keep it simple and keep it convenient while letting the consumer decide what she wants to do without being in her face,” he said. Google also has vast amounts of data about its users that can be valuable in developing new products and targeting ads, he said.

Google has been serving Indian internet users for as long as the company has been around. But intense efforts to adapt Google’s products for India—and invent new ones to serve Indian customers—began in earnest in 2015 after Sundar Pichai, who was born in India, became Google’s chief executive.

Language has been a particular barrier for internet adoption in India. The voice-driven assistant has been very popular in India, with 28 percent of all Google searches conducted by voice.

—©2017 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published: 06-12-2017 08:39

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