For a few years now, we have been talking about the potential of India as a huge market for digital services. Cost barriers of devices and data have bee$n plummeting, creating millions of new internet users. Getting Indians to use the internet now seems to be a lesser challenge. What is challenging though, is understanding the behaviours and needs of this new and very different breed of internet users. Catering to them will require an internet experience that is neither English-dependent, nor at the mercy of high-speed internet.
What are leading internet companies doing to tap into opportunity? At Kstart Institute 2018, we invited Rajan Anandan to share insights on some initiatives being taken at Google.
“India is going to be the world’s first voice-driven internet. You’d be amazed to see the growth we are seeing in voice search queries.”
Google began its next billion Internet users drive about two-and-a-half years ago with the understanding that to get the next billion consumers online (most of whom are coming from emerging markets like India, Indonesia and Africa), they would need to make some fundamental changes to their products.
Google took a three-pronged approach to this. The first was to take an existing product and make it work better in countries like India (eg: Google Maps); the second was to build products specifically for emerging markets (eg: its payments platform Tez was built for India) and the third was to take up ecosystem-shaping initiatives that went to the root of the barriers in getting new consumers and trying to solve those challenges.
India as world’s first offline internet market
Not surprisingly, some major constraints they faced included slower internet speeds, patchy networks, and expensive data charges. So they brought in the offline element into several of their products. Search, Maps, Chrome and YouTube were all made available offline. Launched three years ago in India, YouTube offline is now available in 80 countries and according to Rajan, one of their most successful products.
He also talked about how they designed new products for Indian consumers. One such success story is Tez, which rides on the back of the UPI interface, and notched up 13 million users in two months. The next thing they did was design apps for the more affordable phones prevalent among the new set of internet users, by re-engineering the apps and making them super light.
“It all boils down to deep understanding of what the user wants and also the constraints of these users, and subsequently a deep user insight into how to change your product,” he pointed out.
Internet with local languages and on affordable devices
The most obvious differences between a first world and a new Indian internet user is that the latter accesses the internet through highly affordable devices, and they only access the internet in local languages (Less than 15% of Indians are conversant in English).
“There are 230 million internet users in India who only use local languages. Two years back, the Hindi keyboard or voice recognition didn’t work. Today, there are dozens of Indian languages on the Android keyboard that work pretty well. If you want local language internet to be big in India, you have to first solve the access issue, which is keyboards and voice,” Rajan explained.
There’s no doubt that voice is exploding in India, but in a country like India, that’s easier said than done. “To get voice to work properly is difficult. You have 11 languages with hundreds of dialects for a billion people. There is huge focus on local languages, and the single biggest impact that AI has had for Google products in India is in translation and local languages,” he said.
Solving for India
In explaining these initiatives and the rationale behind them, Rajan illustrated to startups what I have always maintained: when you’re creating products or solutions for a developing economy, you need to understand your user and the fundamental differences between them and a first-world user base. If entrepreneurs have an offering that’s compelling and powerful, they will automatically get users.
The challenge, of course, is to try different monetisation models to see which works. “What encourages me is that our entrepreneurs are really agile,” he added.
Google’s own agility is driven by AI and Rajan believes there is a huge opportunity in India to apply AI to core problems across sectors like agriculture, education, healthcare and energy: “We have 1.3 billion people, massive amounts of unstructured data, which, if harnessed using machine learning, can lead to something very interesting.”
Like him and many others, I believe that in the next couple of years Indian users will mould the internet — and providers of services riding on it — to cater to their requirements exactly the way they want it, and at a price point that they are comfortable with. How this unravels is going to be a fascinating development to watch, and we look to work closely with entrepreneurs who will shape and define this future.
Disclaimer: The article is the independent opinion of the author and does not represent those of Kstart or Kalaari.