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Webbing the world

In Karnataka,Google tries to mould its products to local needs

Written by Saritha Rai |
June 3, 2009 12:05:58 am

Sidgangappa Golur,59,a millet farmer lives on the fringes of Tumkur,a dusty,non-descript town that is an hour-and-a-half drive from India’s technology capital,Bangalore. Wracked by unpredictable rains and expensive farm labour,Sidgangappa can only make a modest living from his few acres.

Google may be the leading purveyor of the world’s information,but Sidgangappa had never heard of the ubiquitous Internet company.

But when an ‘Internet Bus’ sponsored by Google rolled into town last week,Sidgangappa’s curiosity got the better of him.  He clambered on to the high-tech white bus with multiple computers hooked to the internet via satellite.  He listened intently as a Kannada-speaking executive talked about the internet,web addresses,searches and maps.

Sidgangappa has never touched a computer in his life.  But his face lit up when a Google executive explained that he could surf the Internet — check train schedules,read the news,check out horoscopes — all though his cell phone.  When the time came to learn how to GPRS-enable his mobile phone,Sidgangappa was disappointed.  His model was simply too outdated to support Internet communication.

Google is taking its bus on a journey across India’s towns and cities,hoping to educate people about the Internet and how it could be useful in their lives. But if the Town Hall stop in Tumkur and the cross-section of people that came aboard were any indication,the digital divide between Bangalore and Tumkur is not merely a gap but a gaping gulf.

As the ‘bus’ winds its way through Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,Google finds that both technology as well as lack of awareness present challenges to the growth of Internet in India.

For its part,Google is certainly doing its homework.  The company is pushing simple but popular services such as search,email and online maps.  It is promoting the availability of language options on the Internet. But,as Google itself acknowledges,localisation is not just about getting the language right. 

India will have close to 500 million mobile phone users by this year-end. As Google probably realises,its findings reinforced by its touring bus,the Internet will need to be delivered to the average Indian through the cell phone and not the computer.

On that hot Wednesday afternoon in Tumkur,the slice of population that passed through the Google bus could represent any Indian town.  Krishnaiah A.,a senior health inspector at the T.B. Hospital in Tumkur said he was months away from retirement but had never used a computer on his job.  “The hospital has a computer but we also have a computer operator,” he said.

Husband and wife,Suresh Rajashekhara and Jayaratna,both Kannada teachers in a nearby village school,last saw a computer when they went through a teachers’ computer training a couple of years ago.  Teenagers Kokila G.T.,the daughter of a local tile-layer and Kavya N.,the daughter of a welder,both school graduates have just joined their first computer class,paid for in installments,and are learning to use the keyboard and mouse.

All of them,without exception,carried their own cell phone.

Acknowledging that it will take a lot to make information accessible and useful to 1.1 billion India,Google’s India labs are developing services for mobile devices and for local markets. 

“We recognize that users want to access and share information that’s relevant to them in their local environment,” the company says. It wants to develop technologies,products and services inspired by the needs of users.

A pilot service allows mobile users to get premium content such as news and blogs.  An SMS search service available nationally offers searches on stock quotes,news,movie timings,cricket scores and weather information.

On its part,Google’s Internet bus may itself have converted a few improbable users.  Farmer Sidgangappa says he wants his son Kiran Kumar,25,studying to be an automobile mechanic,to get on to the Internet and search for a job. 

“There is no progress to be made in farming,I would rather my son live peacefully earning a steady income on a full-time job,” says Sidgangappa.  He has mapped out his son’s future on the Internet — first the job websites and then,maybe,the matrimonial websites.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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