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Mobile magic

Rather than developed markets, Google may find that its fortunes lie in emerging economies, where mobile phone sales are skyrocketing. India’s R&D and market will play a key role in Google’s next wave.

Print Edition: September 7, 2008

Across a few pockets in Hyderabad, Internet search giant Google is looking to re-tool the way people access information on the Internet. While most people use PCs to “Google” their search requirements, Google is trialing a new voice-based search technique that, it hopes, will help spread its dominance into the mobile phone market. Google today gets almost all its $5.37 billion in revenues (for the quarter ended June 30, 2008) from PC-based Internet search, but is keen to latch onto the fast-growing mobile phone market, too.

Google’s Nishar: Gunning for a billion-dollar business
Google’s Nishar: Gunning for a billion-dollar business
However, the problem is just 10-20 per cent of all cell phones sold in emerging markets such as India are data-enabled and an even smaller fraction of this number are used to trawl the web. To find a way around this problem, Google India researchers have devised (and are now testing) Call Google, which allows users to use a voice search on the Internet, rather than a keyboard or keypad to enter their search.

“We believe the mobile market can be a billion-dollar business,” saysDipchand “Deep” Nishar, Director Product Management, Google, who started the firm’s mobile foray earlier this year.

To expand its presence on (and from) mobile phones, Google has tied up with some of the largest operators and handset makers in emerging markets, including Airtel, KDDI, DocoMo, Vodafone, Nokia and Samsung. “We want to be in every phone and a key part of the mobile ecosystem,” says Nishar.

Indian engineers are also playing a key role in the operation of Android, an open source mobile start-up, which Google acquired in August 2005, for an undisclosed amount. “There is minimal interoperability among other mobile platforms (Windows Mobile and Symbian) and that would hinder the use of Google across operators and devices,” he adds. Google, however, hasn’t had it all its way on this front.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Internet has been swirling with dissent from the developer community over the slow development of Google’s plans on this platform. Then handset market leader Nokia acquired Symbian, an Android rival, to compete with Google.

Nishar argues that there are around 1,700 applets and thousands of developers, and this movement is headed in the right direction. Rather than mine existing technologies and markets, Nishar says Google is looking at a hybrid of its own search with mobile phone technology to improve its presence in the market. “For example, this could be in the form of taking a photograph of a product’s barcode with your phone camera, using mobile Google search to find where and at what prices this product is available and making it available on your phone in real time,” he explains. Nishar, an IITKharagpur grad, has gone from riding in trucks (when he was designing real-time operating systems for truck engines at Cummins) to working with consulting giant McKinsey, and then to Google, where he was tasked with running the company’s mobile business. “We were a three-person unit when we started off and we now believe it can be our next billiondollar business,” says Nishar.

Rather than developed markets, Google may find that its fortunes lie in emerging economies, where mobile phone sales are skyrocketing. For example, in Asia Pacific, mobile phone sales are expected to grow nearly 18 per cent to reach 472.5 million units in 2008.

Rahul Sachitanand

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