It’s no secret that India is experiencing absolutely explosive growth in the web and mobile spaces, on a scale practically unmatched in the world right now. Google has attempted to capitalize on this growth, with CEO Sundar Pichai’s first official trip to India culminating in an alliance with the local government to help get internet access to more of India’s population who are currently not connected. This does not necessarily mean more Google services users, however – to force that would be a violation of Net Neutrality, which we’ve seen can be a sore point for India. The recent trouble over Facebook’s Free Basics service is a good example of this mentality.
Business Insider set up an interview with Keval Desai, an ex-employee of Google, who explained the issues Google faces in India. Desai says the first and biggest issue is that India is a mobile-first market, meaning that most users’ first experiences with the internet are happening right now on modern mobile devices. These don’t always come with Google’s services and even when they do, other services may be more cohesive or convenient. On this matter, Desai said that “Google has to re-architect its product business model to this new mobile era…Google faces a completely new ecosystem in mobile that is similar to the old PC era of the ’80s-’90s and not the web era of 2000s when Google was born.” Anybody around in those days can tell you that locking a user into an easy ecosystem early on, such as AOL, was the way of things.
Compounding the issue is the fact that most Indians get online through full-featured messaging apps such as Messenger and Whatsapp, both owned by Facebook. Google may have Hangouts, Gmail and Chrome, but the lack of integration to make them a comprehensive experience puts them far behind the competition in a place like India where many users are having their first internet experiences via mobile devices. The focus, in a mobile-first world, is on cohesive and comprehensive user experience to keep a user in a given ecosystem. In many other markets, Google users came from the desktop world to Android or got their first Android phone and set up Google’s ecosystem to use it to its fullest, becoming lifelong users from there. In India, this is not the case. Google themselves came on the scene when the internet was young, but popular. Once their search engine began outperforming big contenders like Lycos and Yahoo, there was no stopping them. India, on the other hand, statistically does less searching online and has other options when they do. Mostly, however, they are directed to new content from friends and social networks. In most cases, this essentially cuts Google out of the average Indian’s life.
Desai also pointed out that “desktop social networking”, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, is already a saturated, dominated market, saying “Google has no chance and I think trying to compete here is like fighting the last war…It is pointless and I believe Google recognizes that.” With messaging apps being the “entry point” on most Indian smartphones, Google essentially lost out when they lost the Whatsapp deal to Facebook. This issue is evident in all mobile-first markets, but India is certainly the biggest slice of pie that Google is being denied at the table.
The third problem that Desai pointed out is that Google will have a hard time becoming a destination for internet users in India simply because search, their main product, is not normally a jumping-off point for smartphone activities in the country. “[Internet users in India] do all of their communication, commerce, social activities within the walled garden of WhatsApp,” Desai said. He went on to point out that many users in India don’t even have a Google account because they never got online prior to their first mobile phone, with which they jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon with all their friends and family.
Desai said that Google has three ways out of this problem and all of them involve the creation of a comprehensive messaging app for Indian users to have as a point of entry. According to Desai, Google could leverage its other mobile apps, such as YouTube and Maps, that are popular in India. This could give them the chance to grab consumers’ attention or perhaps even new accounts via forced signup, though that tactic has backfired for many a company in the past. They could also buy up a regional or indie messaging app and reshape it into what they need to take on WhatsApp in India, or simply make one themselves; a sort of messaging-centric web portal. Finding an app to buy up may be tough in this scenario, as would making one without completely ripping off WhatsApp. A third possible solution would be to turn Chrome into such an app through heavy specialized development and rebranding. Desai also mentioned the possibility of deals with Android phone makers to get the software into the hands of more users in India. Desai summed up his thoughts on the matter quite succinctly, saying that “In India, Google will have to win by having top apps and by ensuring that it can be the first point of access for millions of Indians who are still not yet online.”