New Delhi: Call it an attempt to bridge the digital divide with a Digital India flavour or a race to engage as many eyeballs as possible in a bid to sell more online advertising space on the web and to millions of those Indians with mobiles.
Regardless of how you perceive it, the world’s largest social networking site Facebook Inc. and the world’s largest online search and advertising company Google Inc. are sparing no effort to outdo each other in a bid to capture more rural and non English-speaking Internet users.
While Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hinted at ways his company could take the Internet to the “more than billion people who are still not connected" on 9 October with the help of its Internet.org programme, Google on Monday said it will make the Internet more accessible to India’s non-English speaking population through the Indian Language Internet Alliance (ILIA).
The ILIA partnership includes media and publishing houses such as ABP News, NDTV, Network18, Jagran Prakashan Ltd and the government-run Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).
The reason: as the growth in English-language Internet users gets saturated, publishers and technology companies will look at Indian languages such as Hindi to tap into what is expected to be the next wave of online subscribers, targeting 500 million Indians by 2017, compared to an estimated 200 million users currently.
The alliance will look at access to technology for non-English speakers, availability of content, and a policy framework by the government.
“Practically, all of the country’s English-speaking population of 198 million is already online. The remaining new users are not proficient in English and that poses a problem, for which we are partnering with all these companies to make the Internet more accessible for these people. It is important to contribute more content, so India does not miss the boat," Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google India, said.
Anandan pointed out that there were only 22,000 Wikipedia pages that were in Hindi, while Estonia with a population of just 1.3 million had 44,000 Wikipedia pages in its native language Estonian.
Google showcased demos of Voice Search, a tool that uses voice-based commands, in Hindi and also launched a website called www.hindiweb.com for Hindi-speaking Internet users to find such content on a single website.
“This is a very important initiative. It is not a government initiative, it’s an initiative which has come from the industry itself. This is how things build up, things happen, that’s how the cable revolution happened in our country. And that is what will happen to this Indian language Internet Alliance," minister for information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said.
The alliance has constituted three-four working groups—to look at content, font standardization and identifying barriers.
Google acknowledged that these efforts were “definitely late".
“This should have been looked at 10 years ago. But then it was decided that there needs to be coordinated efforts across the segments to reach the remaining non-Internet users," said Sandeep Menon, director, marketing, for Google India.
B.G. Mahesh, founder and managing director of One India, one of the publishers on the platform, believes it’s better late than never.
“I think some work on this has been started by many groups. But when actually Google starts the group, everybody will stand up and take notice of the same. They (Google) are taking inputs from publishers like us, the technology folks. So we are all actually working towards trying to improve the ecosystem," said Mahesh.
There is no current revenue model, said Mahesh, but added that since Internet growth among English-speaking users had saturated, it has “become a hard reality and has actually hit the balance sheet. So now it has to be languages that will help you provide the growth. This will improve search a lot, and it will help increase the revenue".
“The approaches of Google and Facebook are quite different. While Google is talking about availability of content to people, (Mark) Zuckerberg with Internet.org is talking about access to Internet which is an infrastructural basic. Once access is given to the people, other things will follow," said Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation. “But Google has more brand value and their penetration in India is more than Facebook, and this move will go a long way too," he added.
Google remains the dominant company on the Internet with more than 50% of the global search advertising market, and an equally dominant position in the rapidly growing mobile market with its Android operating system and Android One technology platform for emerging countries like India.
Facebook is the world’s largest social networking site with about 1.2 billion users, a little over 100 million of them in India.
Internet.org, founded by Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung, also hopes to take the Internet to the 66% of the world’s population that currently does not have access to the Internet.
On 24 February, Unilever Plc, the Anglo-Dutch parent of India’s largest consumer packaged goods company Hindustan Unilever Ltd, said it will tie up with Internet.org to reach millions of people across rural India. Apart from infrastructure and cost, which are known barriers to connectivity, the partnership will evaluate educational and cultural factors that also limit Internet use.