About 47% of the world’s population are now online. That leaves 53%, or approximately 3.9 billion people, without regular internet access.
To tap into emerging markets, Google is looking to Southeast Asia to attract its next billion users – but the venture is not without its challenges.
As most Southeast Asian users who come online for the first time are from developing countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines, Google is mindful that their experience will be very different from that of users in developed countries like the U.S..
“Their main, and in most cases only, ‘computer’ is a low-cost smartphone,” said Caesar Sengupta, vice president of Google’s Next Billion Users team.
“Connectivity is expensive in relation to incomes, and frequently patchy – websites, maps and especially videos can take minutes to load and often time out. And for many, there is just not enough relevant content available in their language.”
While Sengupta conceded that “these aren’t easy problems to fix”, his company is committed to do a better job of addressing them.
“That’s why we’re building a new engineering team in Singapore – to get closer to the next billion users coming online and to develop products that will work for them,” he said.
These product innovations include faster searches that use less data, offline functionality for Google Maps and YouTube, and the translation of content into Asian languages.
The goal, Sengupta stressed, is to “help people access the info they need, even when their data is limited”.
Accessing Southeast Asia from Singapore
Choosing Singapore as the location for its Asia-Pacific headquarters is a key aspect of Google’s strategy to increase its penetration into Southeast Asia.
The company is also investing heavily to develop its Singapore office into a centre of innovation that will power the company’s growth in the region.
“In many ways, Singapore feels like the best place to do this,” said Sengupta. “It is hyper-connected, with some of the fastest internet speeds in the world. And it sits at the centre of a region with half of the world's current internet users, and more new internet users coming online every day than anywhere else in the world.”
In addition to superior connectivity and proximity to key Southeast Asian markets, Singapore offers a long-term government commitment to becoming the region’s digital capital via its Smart Nation initiative.
It is also home to a vibrant tech community that houses a strong talent base from which Google recruiters can draw, said Sengupta.
Building the region’s top tech talent
Building a world-class local engineering team is another key aspect of Google’s strategy to attract its next billion users, and Singapore provides a fertile hunting ground for recruiting the region’s top tech talent.
Sengupta hopes to give Singaporeans working abroad a strong reason to return home, as well as use the country’s status as the most liveable city in the world for expatriates in Asia to attract top talent from around the globe.
“We look forward to welcoming engineers from across the world who have deep ties to Singapore, want to come back home or would like to start calling Singapore their home,” he said.
Google is dedicated to helping develop local talent in Singapore with a range of talent-building projects.
“Over the past nine years, we’ve contributed to Singapore’s tech community by training young graduates in advertising technology through Digitize, bringing small businesses online with GoGlobal and growing a pool of data analysts through Squared Data Analytics,” said Sengupta.
In addition, he believes that Google can play an important role in inspiring more Singaporeans, especially young people, to build a career in the tech industries.
“This is why we’re bringing Code in the Community to 3,000 young Singaporeans from less well-to-do backgrounds,” said Sengupta. “It’s a multi-year, multi-level computer science and computational thinking course to get even more Singaporean kids excited about the potential of technology.”
A world of opportunity
Besides creating more employment opportunities for home-grown tech professionals, Google’s presence will help advance Singapore’s goal of becoming a global leader in software and IT infrastructure development.
With the digital economy expected to contribute US$2 trillion in additional output globally by 2020, this represents a world of opportunity for local small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as multinational companies like Google to help Southeast Asian markets expand their internet penetration rapidly.
“Through our new engineering team here [in Singapore], coupled with work being done by many Google teams around the world, we hope to continue advancing our mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” said Sengupta.