For Google to continue to expand its global ambitions, it’s going to have to get more people on the Internet. And it’s going to have to make sure its products work in areas with spotty service and low-bandwidth connections.
Around 2.8 billion people currently have access to the Internet of the roughly 7 billion people on the planet. Alongside all the company’s special projects, like self-driving cars and head-mounted computers, also lies one of its most important initiatives: getting those 7 billion people online.
Most recently, Google has made an effort to bring parts of its Maps application’s functionality offline. The goal there is to not only be able to view the map offline, but also search for businesses on that map and navigate in real time while the phone isn’t connected to the Internet or the connection is spotty, Jen Fitzpatrick, vice president of product management for Google Maps, said.
“Google is all about making the world’s info universally accessible and useful,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you’re talking about making it universally accessible, that means all the people in the world — there’s an element that stems from the core of who we are as a company. But there’s also an element that, if you want to have all the world’s knowledge and help people tap into that, that knowledge and info has to come from everyone in the world. It can’t come from people who happen to be on the Internet today.”
There are of course philanthropic elements to the company’s goals. Getting people online has benefits to small business owners internationally. Individuals are able to communicate more quickly and more effectively with people around the globe. With access to more data, a person can get a better understanding of the world — whether it’s for educational reasons, figuring out their symptoms, or connect with potential business partners.
That even extends to parts of the world, like Indonesia and India, that are connected to the web, but it’s so slow that modern services are basically unusable. Many of these countries only have desktop connectivity — India, for example, has a very weak wireless network that has no way of efficiently loading the more extensive and developed mobile web that the rest of the connected world can enjoy.
Those challenges go beyond just connecting people to the Internet as well. People that are connected to the Internet have to create content — Google’s search wouldn’t even be useful, after all, if there weren’t things on the Internet to search for. That presents different challenges, like rethinking how people create content and search for it on the Internet, such as cultural differences and inputs on smartphones like keyboards.
There are several projects Google is currently working on in order to bring that user experience to something that at least ballpark emulates the experience the rest of the world has. One involves the company essentially rewriting mobile pages from its search results when a user is on a weak network connection in order for it to load quickly. To test this, Google emulates a weaker Internet connection internally and has to find ways to get people to pages faster.
Fortunately, many of these countries have Wi-Fi connectivity, but that doesn’t mean the wireless networks are that effective.
Another project Google has rolled out is the ability to download YouTube videos and view them offline. That’s an important step given that many high-fidelity YouTube videos are even heavy lifting on modern wireless networks in the United States.
To be sure, these videos are not permanently downloaded — a device has to call home base every 48 hours for it to stay on a phone — but it serves as an effective way to ensure YouTube users can watch videos when not on Wi-Fi networks.
In the rest of the world, however, people may not have the luxury of dropping huge sums of money on powerful devices like the iPhone or the Nexus 6. That’s where Android One comes in, Google’s initiative to get cheaper phones into the hands of consumers that might not be able to afford powerful phones.
Android has a 78 percent market share according to IDC, and 8 out of 10 devices shipped last year were Android devices. Getting those cheaper devices out gives Google the ability to get those products into the hands of consumers in regions that might not be able to afford higher-end smartphones.
There are other initiatives around the world attempting to do the same thing. But all of these projects have different approaches.
For example, Internet.org, a project championed by Facebook, routes traffic through a proxy server for Internet.org that then ships information to lower-end phones in regions like Asia and Africa. That comes with its own challenges, however, as the program has been criticized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for dictating essentially what people see in those regions coming from the Internet.
Google’s approach is a little different; it applies its lighter search results in its services like Google Search, and its Chrome Data Compression service. The company’s lighter page loading from search is currently a pilot in Indonesia, while its lighter search results are available in 13 countries including Indonesia and India.
Google, of course, can benefit as a business as the Internet grows. The company’s core business and expertise is in search advertising — hence the focus on search speed, though they aren’t focused on monetizing that yet — and that’s a business that scales to the size of the Internet. More people coming online means more potential advertisements and more potential clicks, which would help offset the company’s declining value of its advertisements.
Google still continues to essentially print money, but the value of each click is going down (as it tends to do as more people shift to mobile devices), so offsetting that with more clicks is an important objective in order to ensure the company’s business continues to thrive.
Google’s first-quarter revenue this year was around $17.3 billion. Add an extra billion people to the Internet and it’s easy to see that Google’s business very quickly expands and continues to power its internal machine of experiments and indexing the Web. Each country coming online and finding a better experience browsing the Internet offers a new way to generate revenue and continue to power its innovation machine.
“Google as a company has grown as the Internet has grown, certainly the Internet continuing to grow and thrive and flourish is a good thing for us as a business in general,” Fitzpatrick said. “At this point we’re much more focused is really tapping into these new populations and users coming online and building these products and services and platforms that are going to drive usage. Getting as much of the world as possible involved in inventing and helping drive what that future looks like is a good thing, for Google but also for the world.”
There are other experiments and projects the company is working on, such as bringing Kampala online through its Link experiment. In addition, Loon seeks to figure out if it’s possible to bring people online by beaming connectivity down essentially from floating hubs connected to the rest of the world. That project is currently a pilot in Australia and South America. If any of these work, it can serve as a template for future endeavors to bring the rest of the planet online.
And, if its business continues to thrive, it can continue working on its pet projects, as well as getting the rest of the world online.