At a well-built six feet, Nikesh Arora commands a presence when he walks into a room. Much of it is also because he is the man tasked with bringing in revenues of more than $50 billion - that is more than Punjab's annual income - at Google, the Internet giant.
On a recent unusually hot Thursday evening, the Google Chief Business Officer drags his weary self into a meeting at a New Delhi coffee shop. The six days he's been in the city he was born in have been unforgiving. Breakfast sit-downs, board meetings, sales reviews, client interactions, dinners, and family commitments. Arora is sapped out crisscrossing the capital region of Delhi, the world's largest urban sprawl, in the searing summer heat.
The last wave of technology creates a platform for the next: Nikesh Arora
But before his cold coffee with ice cream arrives, the 45-year-old perks up pointing to his Nexus smartphone. Google Now, an application growing in popularity, has just told him that his flight out to Boston that night is two hours late. An unexpected open window on a tight calendar is a bonanza for any corporate road warrior and Arora is all smiles. Google Now is among the latest of search-based offerings from the world's biggest newmedia firm. It scours your calendar and your work and personal patterns, and meshes them with publicly available information such as traffic, weather, and events to assist you in your daily life. Alerts warn you of a traffic jam on your regular route to work or the blustery weather in the city you are flying to.
Our bet is on innovation. We will innovate at the same pace, if not faster: Eric Schmidt
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt
thinks it is business as usual. "Google's aspiration," he says, "is to be your assistant, to know what you don't know and to get that information to you in whatever way it is quickest."
Comparisons with periods of big economic transformation show that Schmidt's is a self-effacing view. If the steam engine was the prime mover of the Industrial Revolution, search lies at the heart of the Internet. And, Google is doing to the Internet today what Boulton & Watt - the firm through which James Watt commercialised steam engines - did to travel in the UK and the rest of the world. Except that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's founders, are playing at a much bigger table. McKinsey & Co., a firm of consultants, estimated late in 2011 that, the slice of global gross domestic product that the Internet accounts for is 3.4 per cent, or about $2 trillion, and already bigger than agriculture or energy.
Just as the possibilities with a product such as Google Now are enormous - imagine its potential when overlaid with social networks - Internet search is exploding on multiple tangents. Driving that change almost singly is Google. That at a time when some believe the golden era of the Internet is just beginning.
"The rate of improvement in search is accelerating at an unprecedented pace," says Amit Singhal, who heads search at Google. "...search is closer to human understanding of [language] and we are just starting this journey." On May 15, at a conference for developers that it calls Google I/O in San Francisco, CEO Page told 6,000 attendees he believed Google and the broader tech industry has achieved just one per cent, or less, of what was possible, a view that resonates in The New Digital Age, a recently released book that Schmidt co-authored. It took over two decades for two billion people to get on the Internet; the next two billion will come on board in five years, believe experts.Search to Assist
To understand the scope of the change that Google is readying, you need to be embedded at the top echelons of Googleplex, its Mountain View, Santa Clara, California headquarters. Or, get as close with deepdive interviews with its top executives and people who transact with the company as clients, users, partners, consultants, and rivals.
From a one-trick pony in September 1998, Google has become a company with dozens of products, services and applications (see bit.ly/ggltimeline
). It is what Martin Sorrell, Chairman of WPP, the world's biggest advertising group, calls a "five-legged stool" referring to its multi-tentacle presence in web search, display advertising, video, social media, and mobile search.
That makes Google's reach unparalleled. Data trackers such as Statcounter have already declared its Chrome browser as the most used web browser in the world; others think it is behind Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Firefox but not far away. Google's Android operating system powers over 750 million smartphones and is adding 1.5 million users every day. At the Google I/O event, bloggers cheered Google Play Music, which allows all-youcan-listen-to-music for $9.99 a month, new photo tools with Google+, and enhanced features on Google Maps (see bit.ly/gglio
But the surprise announcement: downloads from Google Play, the Android applications repository, had touched 48 billion, closing in on Apple's AppStore - the gold standard in the apps business - which just that midnight announced it had crossed 50 billion* downloads.
Singhal elaborated on his company's "fast is better than slow" philosophy in a mid-April interview. "We at Google innovate at a breakneck pace because that's the only way to survive. So, last year we made over 600 changes to our search algorithm... twice a day we are launching a change," he said on a Google Hangout video chat with BT.
Incremental as that may seem, the search experience has dramatically changed in the last 18 months or so - going from serving you information you are searching for to proactively alerting you as in the case of Google Now. Arora calls this a "search to assist" change and says the next step will be "suggest", where Google will recommend what you can do.
Much of this has been made possible with the introduction of socalled semantic search techniques. Shorn of jargon, semantic search is based on principles that mimic conversational language and human logic behind them. For instance, a search query like "how has the polio vaccine programme in eastern Uttar Pradesh fared" would return results with keywords that best match that search string. But with semantic search capabilities that it brought on board with the July 2010 buyout of Metaweb, one among its some 125 acquisitions to date, Google knows the query is likely around the botchups in the immunization drive in recent years.
Such a result is so much more relevant and follows the first of its 10-things philosophy (bit.ly/ggl10things
). focus on the user and all else will follow. The added garnish to this is what Google calls Knowledge Graph, a database it picks from when you query a person, place, or some other 'object'. This is presented as a box on the right side of the screen in an easily consumed set of photos, factoids and links. You are likely to have seen it but google Amitabh Bachchan or Tirupati in case you missed it earlier. And, such capabilities will play an increasingly bigger role in the months and years ahead. "Many derivative features are in the works," says Singhal.
To be sure, other search sites such as Wolfram Alpha deliver similar functionality but with nowhere near the reach and impact of Google."Think 10x"
Next on the horizon for Google - and this is based on what its executives are willing to talk about, not the under-the-hood work it does - are projects that could translate into big leaps for the company. The company has had a history of making bets on new products and services even when some failed. Examples are Google Wave, Google Buzz and, to an extent, the severely underperforming Google+ (pronounced Google Plus).
Schmidt contextualised it in an interview late March. "I think it is fair to say that we make mistakes and we make mistakes all the time. But the secret is to recover from them quickly," he said. And, at times, it seems like Google doesn't care what others think. To date, the financial analyst community doesn't have a clear answer to the question how exactly Google expects the $12.5 billion it spent on gobbling Motorola Mobility for its 17,000 patents to be accretive to its earnings.
Ever since Page took over as Google CEO in April 2011, the company has been focusing on the really big leaps it can make. Co-founder Brin spends much of his time at the ultra-secretive Google X labs, which have developed products such as the self-driving Google car (click through bit.ly/gglcar
for a nearly blind man at its wheel) or Google Glass, a spectacle frame mounted wireless computer that works on voice and touch commands.
"When you sit and talk to Larry he talks about how you have to think 10X as opposed to 10 per cent," says Arora, the Google head of sales. At a recent meeting at Las Vegas of Google's 13,000-strong sales team, the message from the leadership was consistent. "We talked to people to think 10X, we talked about taking more risk, we want people to move out of their comfort zone.... Otherwise you are doing a functional day job, you are not thinking about change," says Arora.
Speech recognition is a prominent light flashing on google's dashboard
No one at Google will spell out what shape exactly the new bets will come in or when new products or services will be rolled out. But unstructured answers to structured questions reveal some. Speech recognition is a prominent light flashing on Google's dashboard, for instance.
"In video search we are investing heavily in speech recognition and so on so that you will be able to find things that you want even if they are not 'transcribable'," says Singhal. What he is referring to is the "transcript" button increasingly popping up on YouTube videos that allow you to read lines of text representing the audio complete with a time stamp, if not the entire transcription. "There are a lot of challenges... (but) if someone will do it, we will do it. Period," insists the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee alumnus.
Sophisticated speech recognition tech is what voice search is built upon. With the next two billion Internet users mostly set to come on via handheld computing devices - smartphones or tablet computers - Google is readying technology and business models that address potential needs of mobile customers. It already owns AdMob, the biggest ad serving platform for mobile phones, and the future of that business (already worth some $2.2 billion in revenues for Google) depends on how many more users it can get on. And, as Internet use takes root among non-English speaking audiences - India's 150 million Internet users, for instance, exceed its number of English speakers - voice search will be the silver bullet for anyone with ambitions of gaining big custom.
"Imagine a poor family in India in a village which only has a cell-phone and that will be the first connection to the Internet. It cannot really type, and speech recognition with all the power of Knowledge Graph will tell the members things they need to have a better life," says Singhal. Corollaries to that scenario are real-time translation and transliteration opportunities that can potentially obliterate language differences.
“There will be Google. And, then, Amazon” in search five years from now: Martin Sorrell
India, a country with about 400 languages and 2,000 dialects, will solve its education and information challenges, reasons Chairman Schmidt, not by having content in the local language but by ubiquitous translation. "The translation technology is at a point where you speak in one language and the translation comes out in some other language," he says.Mobile, mobile, mobile
It may be difficult to imagine a Mumbai taxi driver from Kalol, searching for a review of director Ram Gopal Varma's latest movie, Satya 2
, in Telugu, via a Hindi voice query and the search engine translating it from a Hyderabad glossy for playback in Marathi on speakerphone for the benefit of his buddies at his taxi stand.
The Internet business will grow 10 times in the next two-three years
Easier to extrapolate are customer experiences on smartphones today. Already, data tracked by Google show 38 per cent of visitors from India to YouTube come via smartphones. And, that is not a small number given that YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006, counts about 50 million customers from India. The broader Internet numbers are even more compelling. By 2015, McKinsey believes, the number of people accessing the Internet from India will double to 300 million. One big draw for the 150 million additions will be entertainment and sports videos, posits Rajan Anandan, the India head for Google. "TV reaches only 500 million people. With a population of 1.2 billion, it is clear that most Indians will watch TV through the Internet," he says.
Critical to such countrywide consumption are low-priced, third-generation, high-speed data services and the fourth-generation service planned for later this year by the likes of Reliance Jio, controlled by Reliance Industries. For an indication on which way the market will turn, meet Nisha Madhulika, a housewife-videopreneur. This resident of Noida, a satellite city to the east of New Delhi, makes some Rs 15 lakh a year through ads on her YouTube cookery channel. She started with a blog in 2007 and turned to YouTube after readers of her blog suggested that she start a video channel. She has invested in HD-quality cameras and gives English sub-titles to her videos, and plans to spend more because "the Internet business will grow 10 times in the next two-three years". Just out of a recording, she says, "Our kitchen is small, I will make the set better."
Tablet computers have already breached the one million mark in quarterly sales
Driving and adding to video consumption in India is the dropping price of smartphones and tablet computers on the one hand and, on the other, India's young and growing millions of digital natives. Earlier in May, Nokia breached what many believe is the psychological barrier in smartphone prices: $99, or Rs 5,400, before taxes for its Nokia Asha 501 model. Tumbling smartphone prices boosted their sales to 15 million in 2012 and International Data Corp has forecast sales at 28 million this year. Anandan expects that to shoot up in 2014 by when he expects smartphones priced at under Rs 3,000. Ditto for tablets that have already breached the one million mark in quarterly sales, after several sub-Rs 10,000 tablets, notably the Aakash 2, were launched last year.
The swelling numbers - including some 11 million desktop and laptop computers sold a year - promise to change the search landscape in India, say industry insiders. The dominant share of smartphones, says Naveen Tewari, Founder-CEO of InMobi, will tip the scales in favour of contextual search and advertising based on user location. He says pilot campaigns in India serving ads on mobile phones synchronised with TV spots by the same advertiser were three times more effective than without the mobile ads. In anticipation of multi-platform campaigns, Google has launched an "enhanced campaign" offering that helps address advertising needs on multiple screens. "We took away the notion of advertising on mobile or desktop and said, 'Put money from this end and get RoI at the other end.' And let us figure out based on location and context what is the best way to advertise it," says Google's Arora. (RoI is short for return on investment.)
150 mn New Internet users in India by 2015, doubling the user-base in the country. They will primarily be drawn in by video and will use voice-based search
Others want a share of the online and search riches, as well. Notably, Facebook that unveiled its "graph search" to search people, photos, interests and places on its mega social network this January. The big shift in search, says ad mogul Sorrell, could be influenced by someone other than Google. "There will be Google. And, then, Amazon," he says when asked about the future of search five years from now. Sure, it counts shoppers at nearly 200 million shoppers and is the world's most successful e-tailer by far, but isn't thinking of Amazon as an advertising rival to Google imagination running riot? I am confused, I say. "Why are you confused," Sorrell booms on the phone from New York. "Well," I say, "I trust Amazon and, sure, I will purchase diapers for my child from there but... ." "There! You have answered your question," Sorrell interjects, implying it is just a matter of time before Amazon serves ads to customers loyal to it.
But for that ominous voice, Google's headed to change the world. Again.Additional reporting by Sunny Sen
*An earlier version of the story had the AppStore downloads at 50 million.