December 7, 2017 8:34 pm JST

Google offers new local offerings to lure more Indians

Search giant ties up with billionaire Ambani's Reliance Jio

© Reuters

MUMBAI (NewsRise) -- Google unveiled a slew of locally flavored products for Indian consumers, in yet another move by the search engine giant to reach out to masses in the fastest-growing internet market in the world.

Google's latest offerings include a feature on Google Maps for two-wheeler riders to navigate through crowded alleyways, a stripped down version of its Android Oreo Go operating system for low-end phones, bill payment services on its Tez payments app, and a tie-up with billionaire Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio Infocomm to introduce a customized version of the Google Assistant on JioPhone.

Google faces stiff competition in India where more people spend time on messaging apps and social networking sites, than on search, analysts say. According to Forrester Research, social media's share of the country's online advertising market will likely grow 11 percentage points between 2015 and 2021, while search is set to decline 15 percentage points.

"Our India-first suite of products and features are aimed to help more people discover how the internet can make life easier and more convenient," Caesar Sengupta, vice-president for the Next Billion Users initiative of Google, said in a statement on Tuesday. These products and features not just for India, he said.

Google estimates that Indians were consuming more data than ever before - four gigabits on average every month-- and is set to grow to 11 GB per month in the next four years.

However, analysts say the biggest challenge for Google is how fast the overall online advertising market can grow in India.

Google had 60% share of the online advertising market in India in 2015, said Brandon Verblow, an analyst for digital marketing at Forrester. But digital advertisement spending in the nation is relatively weak compared with peers such as China, where the number of hours spent on the internet and the effective cost per ad is far higher, he said.

Last year, Google launched Google Stations that allow users to access free Wi-Fi in designated areas, and YouTube Go, an app that allows users to save videos for offline viewing. In September, it entered the digital payments business by launching an India-specific mobile payments service called Tez.

The string of India-specific solutions comes amid a surge in high-speed internet services and the proliferation of smartphones. Last year, Reliance Jio rolled out fourth-generation internet services virtually free for initial subscribers, stirring a price war among telecom operators.

Google's Tez now has 12 million users, and it will start offering customized solutions to pay bills, including utilities and direct-to-home television services from within the app, the company said Tuesday.

It also rolled out Google Assistant in English and Hindi on Jio's affordable feature phone. It will also offer details of air quality in 20 Indian cities through its search platform.

India's surge in data consumption has attracted a host of global players, including social media giant Facebook, its messaging app Whatsapp, Amazon.com, and Apple.

Analysts say Google is facing formidable competition in India from Facebook that has been able to pierce the market with its socially engaging site and Whatsapp messenger app. The world's largest social media company has more than 217 monthly active users in India, its biggest market outside the U.S.

Facebook has been trying to nurture the internet boom in the south Asian country by rolling out cheaper internet in remote areas through a venture called Express WiFi. It is also testing a new marketplace feature that will allow users to list wares for sale and shop for items to buy.

According to Forrester's Verblow, Facebook accounts for the vast majority of social ad revenue in India, the largest smartphone market in the world after the U.S.

"The prominence of mobile usage in India relative to personal computers provides fertile ground for the uptake of social and social ads."

--Dhanya Ann Thoppil

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