Google is a company that needs little, if any introduction. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, we’re talking about the undisputed leader in the Internet search space and hand in hand with this, the most powerful force in the online advertising space. Google has become such an intrinsic part of our daily lives that the verb ‘to G/google’ officially describes the use of the Google search engine to obtain information on the Web, having made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary on 15 June 2006. And I’d venture to say that today it’s impossible for anyone to make use of the Internet for longer than an hour or so without bumping into, or inadvertently making use of, a feature or service that’s powered by Google’s technology. Despite its prominence on the Internet and in our daily lives, Google is a company that’s very aloof when it comes to divulging its plans for the future, detailing any of its business activities or interfacing with the press in general. And that’s why, when Africa Telecoms got an opportunity to speak to Brett St Clair, Head of Mobile for Google in South Africa, about the company’s activities on the African continent, it was a golden opportunity to find out what makes the company tick. St Clair says that Africa is considered part of a new division Google has formed to focus on ‘emerging markets’. Interestingly enough, because of its more evolved business landscape and the presence of a localized version of YouTube, amongst other things, South Africa falls into a cluster of more developed countries reporting into Israel. Until ‘emerging market’ countries get to this point, St Clair says Google’s plans revolve around three key focus areas, namely improving access, increasing relevance and building sustainability.
Better access through cheaper smartphones Broadly speaking, St Clair says Google’s first area of focus centres on how it can assist in getting every African online. “And as we’ve seen through the growth in Internet penetration in South Africa, mobile technology will be a core driver for Internet adoption in Africa,” St Clair says. As it so happens, Google has a fairly significant trump card in its Android smartphone operating system. “We’re working closely with many handset manufacturers to get low cost, Android-powered smartphones into the market,” St Clair explains. While he admits there’s merit in competing with the likes of Apple’s iPhone and other top-end smartphones, easily 98% of the market is about affordable, mass-market handsets. Android gives manufacturers the ability to design handsets in the sub $100 category and get the emerging markets connected to the Internet in a meaningful way. And daily, St Clair says, Google Mobile has to walk the fine line between remaining brand agnostic and being equally committed to all of our handset partners, while at the same time trying to drive and encourage them to design solutions for the entry-level market. “It’s something Google Mobile has done really well so far,” he maintains. “And devices such as the super affordable prepaid Huawei Ideos smartphone – in concert with affordable packages from Kenya’s Safaricom – are great testimony to this.” While most of this activity is led by the international ‘mobile’ team, St Clair says that Google assists locally by driving awareness at an operator level and supporting handset vendors’ in-country activities with public relations initiatives. “Outside of that, however, we have to remain agnostic and cannot be seen as supporting one or another partner more than the others,” he says.
Driving prices down and speeds up Cheaper smartphones are useless without the networks to carry the content Africans so desperately crave and sooner or later any discussion about driving Internet adoption ends up focusing on infrastructure. “It’s no secret that the Internet across the African continent needs to be cheaper and faster, both in terms of bandwidth and latency,” St Clair says. And while Google isn’t generally all that involved in putting cabling in the ground or under the sea (although it does some work with cable providers to invest in capacity), it provides a great deal of other infrastructure that improves the overall performance of certain services. Examples include global caches and local YouTube domains that are installed all across Africa, dramatically reducing international routing costs and improving performance. “In some countries Google even caches non-YouTube and Google specific traffic and invests in points of presence that reduce international gateway costs,” he says. “We realize that if we can help to bring down the costs for operators and ISPs, this will also help to bring down the end users’ costs,” he says.
Relevance Cheaper smartphones: check. Faster, cheaper connectivity: check. Now what about the content? St Clair says that the second major pillar in Google’s strategy is to make the web relevant to Africa. And as a starting point, that means translating it into as many African languages as possible. “There are over 2 100 languages spoken throughout Africa,” he says, “and while we support a number of them right now, we’re working hard to add to that list.” To this end, St Clair says, Google invests in localization specialists who don’t just focus on the translation of content, but also on ascertaining what kind of content each country’s users will be most receptive to. “Additionally, we ensure that YouTube’s interface is translated and that local artists and content creators are encouraged to make use of the local YouTube service. “In some countries, we go beyond this and begin localizing the development of services and technologies across two continents (Europe and Africa),” he adds. Two great examples of services that result from this model are the tailoring or ‘slimming down’ of Gmail so that it delivers an equally great experience in an Internet café in the middle of rural Ethiopia and a dial-up modem in a more urban environment; and feature phone technology such as enabling services like Gmail, Google Search and Google Trader for use over SMS. St Clair says that these efforts are short-term enablers that have great value in the long term, since they are used as stepping stones to the delivery of richer Internet services. “It gets users familiar with these services (albeit in a slimmed-down form) in an instant, so that when they get their hands on a smartphone, the learning curve is less steep,” he explains. The increasing relevance of the web also relies heavily on the intervention and participation of users. And St Clair says this is one of the reasons Google has launched initiatives like ‘Get African Business Online’ or GABO. “Analysts say that a 1% increase in Internet penetration in an emerging country can result in a rise in export GDP of between 4.3% and 4.7%,” he says. That’s incredibly relevant to governments. And by having the right mindset, emerging countries need to know they can seriously improve their standing in the worldwide community. “Fifteen years ago, Korea was considered an emerging market country. At that time, however, the government saw the benefit of digitizing and invested accordingly. “Today, Korea is one of the most connected countries,” he says. In the African context, St Clair says that governments need to realize that by 2015 Africa will have a larger workforce than any other continent. “And if African countries are able to digitize in the same way Korea did, there’ll be great opportunity to compete at a global level,” he believes.
For the long haul Rounding things off, St Clair says that Google’s efforts in sustainability revolve around providing the right educational foundations for momentum to be created. “So, right now we’re working closely with Tier 1 universities to develop course materials that ensure graduates are familiar with the connected world; and, when it comes to more technical disciplines, that graduate developers are familiar with building solutions for the cloud and mobile ecosystems. “We would love to see some Google engineers coming out of these institutions in the future,” he says. When it comes to working with Tier 2 universities, St Clair says Google is bathing campuses in WiFi, providing faculties with devices to experiment with, developing course material on using the Internet, and giving them free access to Google Apps. “Outside of the university context, we’re putting down technology centres, building communities and hosting competitions such as the Android Developer Challenge. “We’re also running a trial investment programme in South Africa called Umbono, and providing it works, we’ll roll it out in the rest of Africa,” he adds. As in most emerging markets, St Claire says there is a ton of venture capital available. “The venture capital companies are just ill equipped to vet technology investments and don’t allow for early investors to exit at the appropriate time (and in turn invest in the next batch of startups), thereby creating a healthy flow of deals,” he says. Umbono solves this by providing startups with between $25 000 and $50 000 of startup capital over a six-month period; office space to grow; and business support in the form of mentorship, formal business training and most importantly, the opportunity to network with players in the venture capital scene who understand how the landscape should operate. St Clair says that, all in all, Google is trying to approach the African market as comprehensively as possible. Certainly, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s comforting to know that Google is engaging to this extent and is not just treating Africa as a ripe new market for growing its Adwords and Adsense presence. AT