Google Rolls Out the Red Carpet in India

Internet Giant Optimizes Products for the Subcontinent

This week at its third annual Google for India event, Google announced several new “India first” products and features that offer a rich and optimised experience for the ever-growing number of Indians online.

The India-first portfolio is intended to pave the way to connecting people to Google’s services such as voice search, payments and navigation.

The navigation service is an interesting example of how Google localised one of its popular services. India is the world’s largest two-wheeler market, and getting around can be quite different for those riding motorcycles and scooters. Recognizing this, Google has added a two-wheeler mode to its Maps app, providing routes that use shortcuts not accessible to cars. It also provides traffic information and estimates of arrival times based on this different mode of travel. Two-wheeler navigation is available in India now and Google will introduce the service to other countries in the coming months.

Google also announced an update of its “light” version of Android, which it is calling Android Oreo (Go edition), complete with parentheses. Android Go was announced earlier in 2017 as a replacement for Android One. The original intention of Android One was to support development of low-cost smartphones, thus enabling more connectivity and, at the same time, Google’s own services. Android One was rather rigid in its hardware requirements and few smartphone makers were willing to give up complete control of their hardware by building a paint-by-numbers device.

Android Go offers more customization capabilities for software and hardware while needing few resources. Android Oreo (Go edition) will have a specialised Play Store that allows users to download any app but highlights those designed to work best on Go edition devices.

Perhaps the most intriguing announcement at Google’s event was the introduction of Google Assistant for the JioPhone from Indian network operator Reliance Jio. The JioPhone is an LTE feature-phone offered for a $23 deposit which is refunded after three years of service. This is the first time that Google Assistant has been available on a feature phone.

Jio introduced the JioPhone earlier in 2017 to cater to the hundreds of millions of mobile users in India still relying on basic phones, with the intention of selling them smartphone services within a few years (see In India, the Basics Still Matter). Along the same lines, Google intends to build loyalty before these users switch to smart devices. Google Assistant will be available in English and Hindi.

There’s a significant addressable market for Google in India. The country already has more than 400 million Internet users and they’re using more and more mobile data thanks to cheaper rates and improved coverage, both a result of heightened competition among operators as well as the introduction of innovative services and business models, particularly by Jio. Furthermore, an increasing number of public Wi-Fi hot spots is enabling more Indians to go online. Connectivity can sometimes be a patchwork, but for many users it adds up to a reasonable Internet access.

Only one-third of India’s 1.3 billion population are currently online, and the country still has huge opportunities for growth in connectivity and service consumption. Google is not alone here. The large numbers have attracted most of the world’s major tech companies looking to find users in India. In addition to Google, others including Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba and Tencent are already investing heavily in services across the country. At the same time Indian companies such as Flipkart and Paytm are looking to attract the same users. The regulatory environment in China prevented Google from becoming a dominant player in that market but India, a country which is nearly as large, provides another mega opportunity.