In developed economies, most people began using the internet on their computers. However, in Africa, online usage is being propelled forward by mobile phones.
“Africa is special because we are leapfrogging, but the needs and the demands [of users] are pretty much the same,” said Brett St Clair, Google’s head of new products for sub-Saharan Africa.
In an interview with How we made it in Africa, St Clair said Google used to think it needed to build specific African solutions for the users on the continent.
“Essentially what we really looked at was SMS solutions, and the only reason why we looked at SMS solutions is because there wasn’t that penetration of smartphones or internet-connected devices [that is seen in developed countries]. Our entire business is based on the internet. So we started looking at how we can build SMS-based services to try and tap into a non-internet world. And it’s very difficult to scale. We haven’t seen any major success,” he explained.
“We have sunsetted quite a few of the programmes. We tried Gmail SMS – we thought that would be really exciting – but because of the nature of the SMS protocol it’s very difficult to try do email at scale. When I say scale, we are interested in not just a couple of hundred thousand people doing it, but hundreds of millions of people doing it,” he continued. “So what we are focusing on now is bringing the services we know people want [to Africa].”
Appetite for YouTube
According to St Clair, a lot of Africa’s online activity started with social media and online entertainment. He said there is a huge appetite for YouTube in Africa, in which Google is investing heavily. However, the problem is that the networks are not fast enough and the data is not cheap enough.
“We have said, let’s rather build a low bandwidth YouTube so that people with an entry level internet device can connect to it and that can operate literally at a modem speed,” he explained.
Google Apps catering for African SMEs
Google Apps offers cloud-based services where all data is backed up online. St Clair said a lot of schools and businesses in Africa use this service, rather than some of the Windows services.
“Where we are seeing a lot of traction is helping businesses in Africa that don’t necessarily have the means or expertise or the money to invest in servers and skill sets to deploy this IT infrastructure – when all they need [for Google Apps] is internet access whether it comes off mobile or desktop. So we are seeing a huge adoption of these kind of cloud services.”
However, he added that the usage of these Google Apps in Africa is not where it should be, purely because of the cost of data in Africa.
Translating African languages
St Clair pointed out that there are over 2,100 different dialects in Africa, and few of these languages are catered for on the web.
“We are really excited about language because, essentially, why should everyone be forced to read the internet in English?”
He added that as Google tries to attract the next 5bn users, a major challenge will be literacy. “So let’s try make it as easy as possible to at least be able to read it in your own language. Let’s use voice services that can speak to you in your own language. It’s about translating the web and it’s also about translation services.”
With Google Voice Search users can speak their queries into their mobile phones. The service currently supports the South African languages of Zulu, Afrikaans and South African English.
“There are challenges with the [tongue] click [in African languages]; how the computer understands the different types of clicks. So that’s a very interesting space to be working in to try and unlock that. But because we are going into a world of wearable devices, the user interface is changing dramatically. And I think we are going to see a huge acceleration in voice recognition and command systems,” said St Clair.
Africa is a massive continent which, in recent years, has seen a lot of investment in infrastructure, with the construction of new roads and residential, industrial and commercial areas. Maps can become outdated quickly and St Clair said he thinks Google’s “biggest win” is with Google Map Maker which is now available across the whole of Africa. This allows users to contribute to mapping the world and documenting new developments.
Google is also slowly introducing Google Street View to Africa. “We are lighting up Street View. We lit up South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana and we are trying to do as many countries – to provide Street View data to the consumer. Okay, it does require broadband and it does require smartphones, but we are also seeing that it is happening,” St Clair said. “And as the price [of data] comes down it will accelerate.”