The Internet’s future lies with its next billion users
It created a kind of traffic jam for writers. So Ofili took inspiration from Nigeria’s okada motorcycle taxis – which can cut through Lagos’s traffic whenever it’s slow – to design Okadabooks, a nimble mobile app that lets Africans quickly and easily publish smartphone books. Today, Nigerians can get 10,000 titles on the app, many of them cheaper than an actual okada ride.
Like many company founders, Ofili found a new solution to an old problem by tapping into the smartphone revolution that is transforming the world. But he also represents something new – a global spirit of technological innovation where local entrepreneurs are tackling local challenges themselves rather than waiting for tech from other regions to reach them. Ofili – along with many Nigerians, Brazilians, Indonesians, and Indians – is part of a trend that is about to redefine the Internet: “building for billions”.
Building for billions means designing new technology for everyone from the very start of the design process. The people coming online through smartphones are using the Internet in radically new ways, and there is a massive potential for creativity and innovation in trying to help them solve their problems with the technology they have in their hands. The future of the Internet will be written by people like Ofili and by the people he’s building for. More than ever, high-tech companies like Google need to focus on reshaping our apps, services, and platforms to work for the majority of the planet.
I personally know how much technology can change lives. Growing up in India, I remember the day we got a landline phone in the 1980s. The phone opened up a new world, and from there onward, those moments I encountered a new technology would help me mark the different stages of my life: the first computer I was able to use at college, my first cell phone, and my first smartphone. I’ve always been fascinated by how tech works and the mechanics of it. But it’s equally exciting to think how a single piece of technology can change a life.
This made me take great interest a decade ago in the One Laptop Per Child mission to build a US$100 laptop for every child on the planet. In recent years, smartphones look to be partially fulfilling that goal of making technology more accessible. Google’s Android mobile operating system alone powers two billion active devices. Smartphones, which now come cheaper than $100, have more power than a cheap laptop from ten years ago and millions of apps available for download.
We should not become complacent, however, that the spread of smartphones completely bridges the digital divide. The push for more affordable smartphones is far from over. There is a lot of potential to create cheaper phones that don’t sacrifice much quality. We recently announced a new program called Android Go that we hope will bring standard smartphone functions to phones with low memory and promote apps that work well those devices. But when thinking about building for the billions who will use those phones, we need a second revolution to solve the next three major gaps: reliability of connection, data costs and relevant content.
Two-thirds of Nigerian mobile users, for example, are on 2G connections, which makes it difficult for people to read websites, let alone watch videos. (This is also bad for Web publishers since we found that a majority of users abandon a website if it doesn’t load after three seconds.) Data can also be prohibitive: the average price of data in Sub-Saharan Africa is more than double the average in India and 50 per cent more than the average in Indonesia. And even with better connections, there may not be the information online that users are looking for. Even though Hindi is one of the most spoken languages in the world, at 370 million native speakers, it’s not even in the top 30 languages used on the Internet.
At Google, we have a team called Next Billion Users who travel the world to hear about people’s Internet pain points and think up new solutions. Their experiences led them to build programs like Google Station, a model for improved connectivity that is already bringing millions of people high-quality Internet access at more than 100 Indian Railways stations. We have, meanwhile, adapted our Search, Chrome, YouTube, and Maps apps to work for users with unreliable or intermittent connectivity, through reducing data consumption or allowing content to be taken offline for later use. We invest into making more languages work on smartphones through open-source fonts, flexible keyboards, handwriting and voice inputs, so that people don’t have to learn English – or learn to type – just to use the Internet. We are piloting new apps that serve new Internet users’ specific needs, including YouTube Go, an offline-first video app that works during low or no connectivity.
But the work of one company isn’t enough. The biggest change we can make is by empowering other developers and companies to solve these issues. There are three core lessons that Google has learned over the last few years building for billions, and in sharing them we hope other app developers can more quickly reach the newest billion Internet users:
Reduce data required to use your apps. A third of global smartphones have less than 1GB of storage, so apps need to be small. India’s Ola Cabs fixed the problem of heavy native apps by creating a Progressive Web App (PWA) – a lightweight mobile website that feels like an app. Their PWA is only 0.5MB and takes up just 50KB of data on its first payload and then 10KB on subsequent loads. This greatly opens up the number of people in India who can call up an Ola cab.
Optimise for speed. For users on 2G, it can take 25 seconds to load a Web page and use 1MB of (very expensive) data. So in 2015 we started optimising Web pages for users on slow connections in Indonesia, India, and Brazil which load four times faster and use 80 per cent fewer bytes. This did not just improve users’ experiences but publishers are getting 50 per cent more traffic from these lighter Web pages.
Speak multiple languages. In India, we found that people would switch between Hindi and English to figure out which language provided the best information. In response, we set up what we call “tabbed search”, which lets you quickly flip between the search results in each language. Given this option, users are searching 50 per cent more.
While, these concepts might seem simple, they’ve proven remarkably powerful as core design principles. And if you want to know more, we have more tips for designing for the new reality of the world’s Internet at developers.google.com/billions.
Today, there are 2.8 billion smartphone users globally, and there will be hundreds of millions more by the end of the year. The Internet is becoming truly global, and we believe that this will give developers from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia an unprecedented new canvas for their talent and entrepreneurialism. And as people come online for the first time, we must train more developers in those countries, since they are the closest to local users’ needs and can build apps that work best for them. And this is great for the globe. Building within the kinds of constraints Ofili faces gives developers a head start in the new rush to the wider trend of building for billions. Catering to the Internet’s next billion users is not just about expanding familiar tech to new places, but developing new things for the future.
Sundar Pichai is Google’s chief executive officer.