‘Digitising India’ is a deceptively pithy use of words that belies the incredible complexity of mapping onto technology the many disparate levers that work in concert to help a country of this size to run. That said, if this attempt isn’t the true zero to one experiment of our lifetimes, I’m not sure what else is.
In our journey of over 15 years in India, we, at Google, have had a unique players’ view of the arena. Many of our products and features that are today used globally were first piloted in India, because India provides a unique crucible that puts to the test a product’s ability to talk simultaneously to someone in Bhilai and another one in Bengaluru while at the same time testing its sheer resilience in the face of India’s tremendous scale.
India’s digital transformation journey is a story of a sustained effort from its ambitious and able entrepreneurs, its large, young and effortlessly technology-savvy workforce, and most importantly, the recognition of the internet as a key driver of progress and economic growth by the Indian government. And while we are fortunate to play a role in this transformation, the vision of a connected India that will help businesses grow, power education for the next generation, drive financial inclusion, improve access to healthcare, improve yield for our farmers and drive sustainable growth for the Indian economy is far from complete.
To drive tech transformation at the scale of India requires deep understanding of the challenges of scale and complexity that come with India’s linguistic diversity, literacy gaps, socio-economic barriers and finding a sustainable model with the right unit economics.
Today, with improved connectivity, lower data costs and more affordable access to personal computing devices through smartphones, India has laid the foundation to deliver the benefits of the internet to a very large section of the population. And what we are witnessing today is a country in transition. We have huge momentum in adoption of the internet and its different offerings. We have a flourishing start-up ecosystem that is building new-age businesses to cater to this growing online population and legacy industries starting on their digital transformation journeys.
But while we’ve undoubtedly charted a large distance, there’s still a lot of ground that remains to be covered. India’s digital divide continues to be a reality, and until such time that we’ve leveled this disparity, the mission isn’t complete.
As anyone in India will tell you, the country changes every 50 kilometers, and as you go deeper, you begin to see large gaps in access to basic services, pronounced linguistic diversity, device affordability issues and digital gender gaps. Many of these gaps have spawned unique user behaviours endemic to India — for example, for a large section of the population for whom literacy continues to be a barrier, online video is their port of entry to the internet. The incredible depth of content that exists in every single spoken language in India, thanks to our flourishing film and TV industries, ensures that users can consume content in their own languages. And when the ease of voice input is added to this, India’s curious and inventive users vault over the frictions of linguistic diversity. Together, the 3Vs of Video, Voice and Vernacular have helped overcome the barriers for many new users.
We are already seeing how the rise of video content on the web in India is powering new experiences in education, with many, across ages and genders, learning new skills, not to mention the diversity in the kind of content India is creating and consuming through online video. For instance, a cooking channel on YouTube from Chinna Veeramangalam of Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu recently became the first Tamil channel to cross one crore subscribers. The channel is run by 75-year-old Periyathambi, who was a caterer, and his grandchildren. This is just one among thousands of such stories, and we strongly believe that online video will continue to shape new opportunities and define new models on the web — ed-tech and video commerce being the most prominent use cases.
Feet On Street
In the last several years, we have seen massive effort with ‘feet on street’ models to digitise India’s vast small and medium businesses. In the process, maps have played a critical role in leveling the information asymmetry that otherwise plagues brick and mortar businesses keen to expand and grow. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember the official names of the streets we frequent, and as you go deeper into the country, many bylanes are yet to be christened at all, posing massive challenges for e-commerce and logistics solutions.
From having no digital maps to using maps to get around anywhere in the country, with directions, with landmarks, in your own language, has created unimaginable opportunities for businesses and made life easier for people across the country. And today, while there are now a significant number of small businesses which have an online presence, leveraging digital platforms for growth requires new mindsets and skills. It will require efforts from the entire digital industry to handhold businesses to gain from the internet.
Today we see most large businesses investing in building technology capabilities, and a majority of them are full-stack businesses that deeply leverage technology and have large offline components and business models that deliver end-to-end solutions. We are now beyond the era where building an app was the ultimate bastion to signal a company’s tech prowess — today, a company’s depth of technology capability is a true competitive differentiator. This is playing out most prominently in retail, auto and more recently in insurance and banking.
As we have progressed upon this journey, we have seen seminal events that are now cited in Ivy league business school case studies as game changers. Reliance Jio’s entry and the rollout of the Unified Payments Interface by NPCI are just a couple of such examples. India is writing the playbook for the world on digitising payments.
If you look across the technology sector— from travel, food-tech, ed-tech, agri-tech, healthcare, transportation, and fintech — India’s internet is defined and shaped by proudly Indian companies. They have demonstrated tremendous resilience and capability to build and scale up very successful companies that shape India’s internet. Scaling up these businesses further will require huge access to capital and innovation that the world has not seen before. India has enormous potential to shape the global future of the Internet.
While the challenges ahead are theoretically clear, India has many disparate variables that need to be constantly tracked and studied to build solutions that work for everyone. Today, with close to 600 million Indians online, we have indisputably come a long way. But we’re now entering a phase where we need to recommit to understanding the challenges of the rest of India, or Bharat if you will, to make their internet as helpful as it is for you and me. Further work remains to be done to address affordability, new use cases and studying the broader technological shifts accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
We also need to invest and ensure that users, both old and new, continue to put their trust in adopting new services and the digital way of life. As an industry, we need to earn that trust by prioritising user privacy, safety and security. The pandemic has led to digital tools becoming a lifeline and we see consumers and businesses rapidly doing more online. Schools, small and medium businesses, large companies and governments are all under intense pressure and urgency to digitise. While this transition will be challenging — daunting, even — it is also an incredible opportunity to innovate and usher in models that can make Bengaluru and Bhilai feel closer than ever before.
(The author is Country Head & VP, India at Google)
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