Not so long ago, Google was a US-based search engine. And that was pretty much it; at least to many of the people that were using the internet in Africa at the time.
But as the number of people using its services – mainly search and mail – grew, the internet giant has shown growing interest in business across the continent; so much that it some times feels like a local firm when you see Gmail billboards on the streets in your city.
While that has come as good news to the regular internet user on the street, or the traveller needing directions, it may have stood in the way of the success of some of the could-have-been Africa’s biggest innovations. I had a heated Twitter debate with some of the tech-savy followers earlier this year: the time Google took a guilty plea that a number of people working for it “improperly” accessed the customer database of a rival company in Kenya to boost its own business.
While many people may only remember the events of the scraping of Mocality’s database, it needs to be mentioned that Google had launched a platform called Getting Kenyan Businesses Online, with which it offered free websites to SMEs in the country. Not only does this move directly affect the efforts of local web designers and web hosting resellers, it also literally competes with traditional online directories. Like Mocality.
— googleafrica (@googleafrica) July 18, 2012
So what is it that Google wants? Is it providing solutions? (What’s that phrase they say about African solutions to Africa’s problems?).
The company has offices in eight African countries and has launched, whether intentionally or not, products that have the potential to be game changers on the continent. Here’s a look at some of these products:
Sure, the African continent has yet to make as a dramatic shift that other markets have from dumb phones and feature phones to smartphones – according to Informa Telecoms & Media, smartphones account for 3% of cellphones across the continent, and are predicted to reach 15% by 2015. But when an African consumer upgrades, or buys a tablet, they are more than likely going to choose an Android device. This is according to IDG Connect, whose research paper “Tablets 2020” says that African tablet owners demonstrated the lowest percentage of iPads (46%) and the joint highest number of Android owners (49% – tied with Asia).
What’s more, while overall tablet ownership was low (55% of those surveyed), Africans are the most active tablet users, with 80% of people using their tablets for work. Globally, the average is 61%. The clincher though is that 44% of non-tablet owners would buy an Android device in the next year, compared to 21% who favoured an iPad.
This preference is no doubt partially price motivated: for instance Nigeria’s Fasmicro produces Android tablets that sell at N59 900 (R3 380 / US$390 at time of writing). In addition, Samsung is pushing hard across the continent building an Android-based ecosystem, as is Huawei with its cut-price handsets.
SMS 2 email
Not wanting to leave the “dumb phone” owners out in the cold, earlier this year Google launched GMail SMS, a service that lets you send and receive emails as SMSs. Previously Gmail users were only able to access the service via a PC or a smartphone. So it made sense for the search giant to pick Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya as the countries where it would launch the service. Clever Google — it’s just introduced itself to a huge group of mobile-only people it would previously have been irrelevant to.
These maps are made for walking
Also in July, Google added walking directions to its free Google Maps and Google Maps for Mobile in 44 African countries in addition to South Africa and the North African countries where it was already live. Google warns that the service is still in beta so commuters should use common sense. The company is hoping to crowdsource corrections to any errors via its Map Maker service.
Google speaks your language
Google currently offers 33 distinct African language user interfaces for Google web search, according to the Google Africa Community Translation site, which invites volunteers to translate, localise and review Google user interfaces. Some, such as Afrikaans and Swahili are well on their way, 89% and 79% complete respectively; others have a way to go: Zambia’s Bemba language sits at 0%.
Unsurprisingly, according to the company, search requests from sub-Saharan Africa ramp up faster on African language pages than those in languages such as English, French or Portuguese.
Google Global Cache sets out to circumvent some of Africa’s bandwidth constraints by allowing ISPs and companies to serve Google and YouTube content from inside their own network. Because the content is cached locally, accessing it becomes faster and cheaper. On the one hand, not that much of a game changer when it comes to accessing videos of Justin Bieber or cute kittens, but on the other, changes the playing fields when one considers content such as YouTube EDU.
Nelson Mandela archives
And, finally, earlier this year Google announced the launch of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (NMCM), which includes thousands of archived documents, such as letters written by Mandela, that have been digitized to both preserve them and make them accessible to people around the world.
I foresee a time when local firms will start seeing Google as a real threat to their operations… much as most of them will have grown with its help.