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BW Businessworld

Google’s Big Game

Google has earmarked a $10 billion Google for India Digitisation Fund to help accelerate India’s digital economy; it is also joining hands with Jio to launch a Made in India smartphone

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Google’s play in India began nearly 16 years ago, when in 2004, it opened its first offices in Hyderabad and Bangalore. The focus then was information through Google search. It then undertook a deeper task of awareness of the Internet in rural villages through programmes such as ‘Internet Saathi’. The programme helped more than 30 million women across India to gain digital skills. 

Over the years, Google kept deepening its India footprint, increasingly using more advanced tech, for example, Google AI (artificial intelligence) to create a flood forecasting system designed for India’s monsoon season, to build products for the country.

With presence in nine Indian languages inclusive of voice search, and eyes on over 500 million Internet users, for Google, India was always core to its ‘Next Billion Users’ initiative. Now, the global tech and digital leader has put more of its money where the mouth is. 

A $10 Billion Commitment

Google has parked $10 billion (Rs 75,000 crore) for India Digitisation Fund, which will be spent over the next 5-7 years. According to the CEO of Google and parent brand Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, this fund is to help accelerate India’s digital economy.

Pichai made this announcement during a virtual edition of Google for India 2020. Citing examples from Google’s work in India, he stated that several innovations have started in India and then expanded to the rest of the world. But India’s own digital journey “is far from complete”. 

“There’s still more work to do in order to make the Internet affordable and useful for a billion Indians, from improving voice input and computing for all of India’s languages, to inspiring and supporting a whole new generation of entrepreneurs,” Pichai commented.

Aiding India’s Digital Economy

Pichai explained that the creation of the India Digitisation Fund is a “a reflection of Google’s confidence in the future of India and its digital economy”. A point that can be seen in the investments the country has attracted from other tech platforms including Facebook.

Sanjay Gupta, Country Head & Vice President, Google India elaborated on this thought. He explained that every day, more Indians are learning to do things digitally. Increasingly, there is a need to digitally solve the challenges that India faces in health, education or agriculture. More businesses need to be connected and bring digital to their core offer. 

As Gupta pointed out, there is a clear need to get the next 500 million people connected to the Internet. The government and several companies in India are constantly taking steps towards this goal.

In this backdrop, Gupta observed, “We need to be more competitive equally. We need to create job opportunities for young Indians. This vision needs the power of every Indian, to get behind this dream. This is the moment when a technology company like ours, businesses both big and small, and Indians at large can play a transformational role. This opportunity of a digital India excites us at Google. Our mission is to make the Internet helpful for a billion Indians and empower India to become a leading digital economy.”

All of Google’s decisions in India are guided by this thought.

The Jio Partnership

While Google has been investing in many Indian businesses through Google, as well as its growth equity investment fund CapitalG, the India Digitisation Fund will be creaated through a mix of equity investments, partnerships, and operational, infrastructure and ecosystem investments. 

The first big move is seen with Google signing an agreement to invest $4.5 billion (Rs 33,737 crore) in Jio Platforms, taking a 7.73 per cent stake in the company. 

Google and Jio Platforms have inked a pact to jointly develop an entry-level affordable smartphone with optimisations to the Android operating system and the Play Store. “Together we are excited to rethink, from the ground up, how millions of users in India can become owners of smartphones. This effort will unlock new opportunities, further power the vibrant ecosystem of applications and push innovation to drive growth for the new Indian economy,” Gupta explained. 

The Jio deal is the first of the many local partnerships that Google is exploring. It intends to work with other leaders in the local ecosystem to ensure that smartphones — together with the apps and services in the Play Store — are “within reach for many more Indians across the country”.

The Focus Areas

The Google investment will focus on four broad areas that it believes is important to India’s digitisation. The first in this is enabling affordable access and information for Indians in their own languages. The second is building new products and services that are deeply relevant to India’s unique needs.

Empowering businesses as they continue or embark on their digital transformation is the third bucket and the fourth is leveraging technology and AI for social good, especially in areas such as health, education and agriculture. “As we make these investments, we look forward to working alongside Prime Minister Modi and the Indian government, as well as Indian businesses of all sizes to realise our shared vision for a Digital India,” Pichai commented.

A large part of Google’s efforts is towards making the Internet do more for Indians. Google’s way forward with India Digitisation Fund stays the course in this objective.

Informing India 

Google’s core mission to organise information and make it universally accessible and useful was seen in India during the Covid times as well. “We worked with the World Health Organisation and Ministry of Health & Family Welfare to surface credible and authoritative information on Covid-19 across all Google platforms like Google Search and YouTube, and in multiple languages. We also put out preventive measures and safety precautions,” Gupta informed. Besides, Google worked with My Gov and several state governments to organise information for over 11,000 food and sleep shelters, spread across more than 700 cities. 

“We made this information available on Google Maps, accessible to feature phones through our Phone Line initiative with Vodafone Idea. Through services like Google Meet, Google Classrooms, Read Along and YouTube Learnings, we provided safe options for schools as they were required to go completely digital. Google Pay contributes digitally to PM Cares, and in a few weeks, it generated Rs 120 crores,” Gupta explained.

Building for the World    

An important takeaway is Google’s approach of building for (and in) India and taking it to the world. Pichai reminded that people in India no longer have to wait for technology to come to them. In fact, a whole new generation of technologies are happening in India first.

“Google’s efforts in India have deepened our understanding of how technology can be helpful to all different types of people. Building products for India first has helped us build better products for users everywhere,” Pichai explained. 

A recent example is GPay, a way to pay contactless or online. Together with the rise in BHIM-UPI adoption, GPay allows paying rickshaws, or sending money to family in other towns and the likes. “India is setting the global standard on how to digitise payments, and it’s now helping us build a global product,” Pichai informed.

Google AI-powered reading tutor app Bolo, now called Read Along, is another example of a technology built specifically for Indian users. This has now rolled out to 180 countries in nine languages, with more to come.

Another area Google has been active in is the digitisation of small businesses. Just four years ago, only one-third of all small businesses in India had an online presence. Today, 26 million small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) are discoverable on Google Search and Maps, driving connections with more than 150 million users every month. 

The pandemic has further accelerated the adoption of digital tools. Small merchants across the country are now equipped to accept digital payments, making it possible for more small businesses to become part of the formal economy, improving their credit access.

Reflecting on the overall picture, Pichai said, “There’s no question we are facing a difficult moment today, in India and around the world. The dual challenges to our health and to our economies have forced us to rethink how we work and how we live. But times of challenge can lead to incredible moments of innovation. Our goal is to ensure India not only benefits from the next wave of innovation but leads it. Working together can ensure that our best days are still ahead.”  

This article was first published in the print issue of (10 July - 25 July) BW Businessworld. Click Here to Subscribe to BW Businessworld magazine.

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