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December 10, 2012

Google to Bring Next Billion People Online

Photo by Ulysses Ang
SINGAPORE—Twelve years ago, the internet was seen as a tool for the wealthy and the privileged. Today, being ‘connected’ is seen as a necessity and in some countries, a basic right. Times have changed, and Google seems to be taking the lead as the company outlines its vision to bring the next billion people online.

Concentrated in the world’s emerging markets: South America, Africa, and Asia, Google foresees that 500 million new internet users will go online in the next three years, compared to just 15 million new users in the United States. And unlike the traditional ‘desktop’ setting so prevalent in the past, this new market will access the internet through mobile devices. In the Philippines for example, there are currently 27.5 million internet users from 8.2 million in 2009, fueled largely by the 29 percent growth in ‘smartphone’ penetration which is one of the highest in the ASEAN. Elsewhere, Malaysians spend 20 hours online each week, 95 percent of Vietnamese aged 15-24 have access to the internet, and India is Google’s fastest growing market for mobile search queries. The anecdotes go on and on but the message is clear: this part of the world is becoming wired. And fast.

Google understands this and has aligned its long-term strategies in order to satisfy this fast-growing mobile segment. The company has identified speed, relevance, and sustainability as its main challenges to bring the next billion people online and is confident that they can deliver products and services which are made to address these issues.

Google’s answer to make the web experience faster is two-fold. First, the company has already spent more than US$ 750-million on new data centers located within the emerging markets to make the web experience faster, more reliable, and cheaper especially for internet service providers or ISPs. Next, they have made their suite of products such as Chrome web browser, Gmail, and even YouTube work as fast as possible while remaining adaptive to less reliable internet connections. Lastly, the company understands that although 70 percent of phones sold in emerging markets are web-enabled only 14 percent use them due to prohibitive costs, so they have created Free Zone to provide free access to Gmail and Search results.

Answering the challenge of relevance, Google is beefing up its presence by going ‘local’. Because Google believes that the average person spends 80 percent of his live within a 10-mile radius of where he was born, they’ve beefed up their translation tools (35 languages and counting) and arranged search results based on geography. In addition, crowd sourced applications such as Maps allow people to make their internet experience much more locally relevant. Today, Maps is available in more than 190 countries with over 1.5 billion people using it. In fact, it has become an important tool in international aid with organizations such as the United Nations using it during crisis relief efforts. Finally, by employing a simplified interface using icons instead of words, products such as Google+, Maps, and YouTube manages to cross language and cultural barriers.

Google understands that the internet experience is only as good as its content, and believes that a sustainable online community is needed to keep it that way. Google is creating a community of developers to help foster local talent in order to lower the so-called ‘information barrier’. At the same time, it will make the internet experience much more significant and relevant to the general population. For Google, it sees the growth of small and medium businesses (SMB) and their online presence as the turnkey to the internet’s sustainability of local relevance. Newly rolled out products such as Trader in Thailand for instance, allows SMBs to post goods for sale without the need for a separate website. This brings incredible new business opportunities for potential entrepreneurs while giving the Thais information that’s much more relevant and more local, such as where to buy a new mobile phone or even what the local fruit stand is keeping in stock.

“Poverty is   an information problem,” says Nelson Mattos, Google Vice-President for Product & Engineering for Europe and Emerging Markets. “If it is unblocked, it can raise income, education, and improve the lives of people as a whole.”

Google, with its corporate mission of making “information universally useful and accessible” believes it can play a hand in solving poverty, especially in the emerging markets. The company believes that with the next billion people coming online, the world will become a global market place of ideas where two to three billion people will all be contributing and benefiting from the world’s best ideas, talents, and more. What a wonderful world that would be.

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