Back in 2015, Ola taxi driver Arjun Kumar Yadav had great difficulty in accessing his smartphone. Yadav, a migrant to New Delhi from Madhubani district in Bihar, struggled to read, type or even engage with his smartphone meaningfully, barring the Ola app and the map he relied on for navigation. He would often ask his customers to help translate every detail on his screen from English to Hindi.
“Sir, hum toh zyada padha likha nahin hoon. English ka thora bahut samajh tha, gaadi ke maamle mein. Us se zyada kuch nahi pata tha,” he told the writer. (I’m not highly educated. I understood some English words pertaining to the cab, nothing more.)
Yadav’s story isn’t an exception in India, a country with 23 official languages and over 1600 dialects. And Google’s new focal point is users like Yadav—the “Indian language internet user”. At every product launch, every announcement, Google wants to be seen as reaching out to them, building for them. Be it access, through Google’s RailWire project, products like Gboard keyboard, voice search, YouTube, or even the newly-launched payment app Tez. Today, Google India is all about going local.
And this is why. Nearly 99% of Indian language users in India (also identified as non-English users) access the internet from their mobile phones. The Google-KPMG report further underscores the dramatic growth in India’s language internet user base, which increased 5X from 42 million in 2011 to 234 million in 2016. In contrast, India’s English internet user base stood at 175 million in 2016. There’s more to come; the language user base is expected to grow to a number as precise as 536 million in 2021.
Source: Google-KPMG report “Defining India’s Internet”, April 2017
* – Indian language users mentioned includes an overlap i.e. an English internet user who consumes Hindi content is also included as a Hindi user
Needless to say, the language internet presents a million dollar opportunity. Google realises that while the language user may have been left out or skipped during the first internet wave, today, smartphones have changed the dynamics of access completely. Besides, data prices are falling, sometimes right down to zero. This has meant a shift in the kind of users Google has. In the last 18 months alone there has been a “significant uptake” in language users coming online.
It will be fair to say that Google isn’t alone. Everyone from Amazon to Facebook to Microsoft to Alibaba’s UCWeb is racing to win India’s hinterland. Think of it as a throwback to the time when fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) giants were battling each other tooth-and-nail for supremacy beyond urban India.