Yesterday I watched the Google I/O keynote and was impressed many times over by the new features and products announced by Google and Android. Yet, as impressed as I was/am by Photos, Cardboard, and Google Now (and I might just write a post about each next week after I have had some time to play with them) at the end of the day I found myself going back again and again to the presentation by Jen Fitzpatrick.
Ms Fitzpatrick talked about connecting the next billion users and about how these new users are coming online for the first time via mobile. These users want to tap into all the information the web has to offer and learn about the world beyond their community. Interestingly enough, Google predicted that users in just six countries would account for 1.2 billion new mobile users by 2016. Each country brings its own unique usage scenarios, opportunities, and challenges. As 8/10 phones sold today are Android devices, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of these new billion plus users will be using Android phones. Ms Fitzpatrick stated that Google’s goal is to bring these people online and give them a great experience once they get there.
To answer the first part, Google wants to remove barriers to smartphone adoption. In the countries where growth is expected to be the greatest, many current offerings are mostly low quality hardware running out-of-date software. Google’s answer to that is better hardware with Android One phones that include support for features for unique features in these countries, such as dual SIM cards, replaceable batteries and FM radio. Android One phones run up-to-date versions of Android and are the first to get updates so that users can benefit from the latest versions of apps. Chromebooks are another device that Google offers to new users that are relatively accessible price-wise world wide and are “fast, secure, and with an all-day battery life.” It’s interesting to note what features Ms Fitzpatrick chose to highlight for these devices. It’s not about a screen size or weight but rather dual SIM and battery life.
To answer the second part, Ms Fitzpatrick stressed that the core Google apps need to be fast, useful and relevant no matter where users are, implying the need to adapt to power and connectivity challenges in each country. She stressed the importance of having access to the full range of information online. Connectivity challenges include, including coverage, expense and speed. It means that it can take minutes to load a webpage or map, and more to buffer a video. To meet these challenges, Google’s core products need to be rethought and revamped.
Search and Chrome are the basis of initial access. In Indonesia, it could take up to 8.5 seconds on a 2G connection to load a search result page. The new product answering this challenge: a “light” search result page that streamlines results. 10 times smaller and 30% faster. But even clicking on a result on this streamlined page can take up to 25 seconds to load and use 1MB of data on slower connections. Optimized results pages load 4 times faster and use 80% fewer bytes and make it easier for users to find the information they need. Additionally, the faster and lighter search results pages reduce memory usage on the phones which benefit lower memory devices, another aspect of matching the app to actual experiences in different countries.
In India, Google found connectivity speeds and quality vary widely, so Chrome has a network quality estimate and adapts the web page based on the quality of the user’s connection. For example, some images are replaced with blank placeholders but this is done smartly: the important images, such as navigation and logos are still displayed and the less important ones are not. Thus the page is both usable and fast. Realizing that there are more occasions when a user has no connectivity, there are also enhanced offline capabilities for Chrome, including saving any page for later offline access.
YouTube is very popular in these growing markets and video consumption is exploding. YouTube Offline, offered only in select countries, allows users to save a video to their device and watch it within 48 hours, even when they are not connected.
Maps is another popular and highly used app in these countries. To overcome unmapped areas in Brazil, Google helped local residents map the previously uncharted Favelas. Being “on the map” became a proof of existence for many businesses and benefited the entire community. Additionally, Google added more support for local public transportation systems in India and MExico. The final piece in the puzzle was to help Google Maps work offline. In the demo, after saving a map previously on the phone, Ms Fitzpatrick was able to search for places, with autocomplete fully functional and all information about the place is also saved. The audience clapped loudest for a new feature that allows turn-by-turn directions even when a phone is offline. Allowing searching and navigating in Maps even when offline is truly a powerful tool.
With these five elements, the hardware, Search, browsing, YouTube, and Maps, Google can provide true, unwalled access to the internet for the new billion users expected to come online this year. This resonated for me personally because by implementing these changes, Google can open the online world to millions. What I call the “incremental benefit” is huge. It’s not like offering another great app to a user who has tried thousands of them since his first smartphone 7-8 years ago, who owns the latest flagship phone and has constant access to high-speed Wi-Fi and mobile data wherever he goes. This is for the user who has access to information and the ability to connect with other people for the first time ever. And that’s incredibly powerful.