Saturday, September 20, 2008

Improving Lives Through Search

One of the most common questions I'm asked when I talk to people about building products and services in Indian languages is, "Why?" The unspoken thought behind the question: those who don't know English in India are dealing with more basic sorts of problems - web search is a luxury that can have only tangential impact in their lives.

I beg to differ.

One of the most powerful features of the web is the democratization of access to information. With the web, consumers can be free of value-extracting middlemen and brokers of information. With the web, consumers can reduce information asymmetry. That isn't a luxury - it's a powerful tool to improve lives.

Imagine a sick child, and parents who have no easy access to medical care. The web can yield information to understand symptoms and help parents provide basic treatment. Imagine a bright school student who attends a poorly-run and managed school that will ill-prepare her for college and the job market. If this student could access educational content online, it could transform her life prospects.

Search can improve lives. And it helps those people most who have the least access to alternative sources of information - typically those lower down in the socio-economic ladder.

One of the things I like to do is to read Google's customer testimonials from time to time. I've reproduced a few below. This isn't a pitch for Google - you can replace "Google" with the more generic "search" and the message is equally powerful.

Message from: Abigail

"Google helped me discover that my daughter's strange medical problems are part of a rare genetic syndrome that most of her doctors had never heard of. Her doctors diagnosed her after I brought them the information, and my discovery helped her cardiologist diagnose another patient with the same syndrome. Because of my daughter's new diagnosis, we have uncovered other dangerous but treatable problems that we wouldn't have known about until they caused her serious damage. So, I'm very grateful to the people at Google who made all of this possible. Thank you."

Message from: Ann

"I just wanted to let you know that Google may well have saved my life. My sons and I were walking home from having eaten out. A half block from my house, I felt this pressure building in my chest. Immediately, I thought, 'heart attack' and ran through how I'd been feeling that the day (I had been nauseated). My first thought was, 'confirm suspicions,' and immediately, upon arriving home, I went to Google and typed in 'heart attack.' I kept thinking, 'you only have minutes...' I found a site that listed symptoms. Indeed, I was having a heart attack. I was at the Albany fire station within minutes. Five baby aspirin later, and a few squirts of nitro and I was in the ambulance on my way to the hospital. The good news is, I have no residual damage. My heart is back to normal. Thank you for providing the Google search engine. I'm sure my recovery was complete because of the speed within which I was able to get help."

Message from: Laura

"Last year my daughter, who was a senior in high school, was afraid of failing her math final. I did a search on Google and came up with more than one method of explaining the formulas...She passed the final and ended up with a B in the class instead of a C. "

Friday, September 12, 2008


On this festive occasion, I'd like to wish all Malayalees Onashamsakal. To celebrate the occasion, Google just launched a News edition in Malayalam. You can learn more by reading our post on the Google News blog. Of course, if you're looking for more information on onam or on any other subject, in Malayalam, you can also use Malayalam search. It's very easy to type in Malayalam using a normal english keyboard: you start typing Malayalam words in english, and we will generate Malayalam suggestions for you to select as your query.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

India by the Numbers

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the areas I focus on is Indian language products and services. The basic thesis is this: India has a huge population of people who should be using the internet but are not. One of the primary barriers to usage is language: the internet is a fairly unfriendly place in India if you don't speak English. Let's try removing or lowering this barrier, and the internet becomes useful for a much larger group of people. I'll elaborate on each of these points in subsequent posts, but for now, let's look at some numbers* (you could quibble about some of these e.g. literacy numbers supplied by state governments may be inflated, but they are in range of the true number):
  • Total population: 1.2 billion
  • Total literate population: 650 million
  • Total middle class population: 350 million
  • Total newspaper readership: 200 million
  • Total vernacular newspaper readership: 180 million (90% of total)
  • Total English-speaking population: 80 million (self-identified as speaking as first- or second-language in the 2001 census)
  • Total online population: 40 - 50 million
If you (quite reasonably) assume that pretty much everyone who is online in India today speaks English, then the low internet user base makes sense - it's more than a 50% penetration among English-speakers, and zero among the other 93% of the population.

We need to build the Indian language web. Who's in?

* (Sources: 2001 Indian Census and 2006 National Readership Survey)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hello? Testing.. 1... 2... 3

Is this thing still on?

My last blog post (before this one) was exactly sixteen months ago! It's amazing how time flies. I blogged back in April of 2007 about our imminent move from the Bay Area to Bangalore. Well, the move happened, and my wife and I have been in Bangalore since May last year. What with getting used to a new city, a new job (Product Manager at Google), a new social life (or lack thereof), blogging took a back seat.

What's pretty neat is that in the time that I've been away, I've actually been working on many of the themes that I've blogged about: product innovation in developing countries. My focus during the last sixteen months has been on Google's Indic language strategy and figuring out how best to bridge the language barriers that make the internet so daunting for the vast majority of India's population.

I hope to pick up where I left off in May last year. Is it possible to resuscitate a blog after a year? I hope so. I'd like to revive this blog, share my thoughts and ideas, and get your feedback. In the meantime, take a look at some of the stuff Google is doing in India.