If you are driving on the Western Express highway in Mumbai, you'll notice hoardings proclaiming: "Stuck in Andheri?" or "Even an empty street can be full of surprises" and carrying other messages in a similar vein. These hoardings have been put up to publicise Google Maps, one of the applications owned by Google, with over a billion users worldwide. So, why the hoardings?
The Mountain View, California, USA-based Internet search giant knows that many of its next billion users will come from India as, even after surpassing the US in the number of Internet users, there are many potential users here who have yet to access the Internet. And, to catch people's attention in India, Google is taking an offline approach which is very unusual for the company.
On 4 October, Google launched the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones under its own brand name, and these were later launched in India on 25 October.
One day before the India launch, the company held an event for so called social media influencers. While many phone companies organise such events, it was unusual for Google to have done so.
The Pixel phones, given free to the attendees, were discussed a lot on social media over the next few days. Google had succeeded in generating a fair amount of curiosity among users. Unlike the geek-favourite Nexus series smartphones launched earlier by Google subsidiary Nexus, Pixel was being talked about everywhere. The company made sure that prominent online tech aficionados who were not present at the event also received the phone to keep the conversation going. It also placed Pixel billboard ads everywhere so that people took notice.
Google completed 18 years recently and it held an event in Delhi where it announced many new products catering specifically to the Indian user. A lighter version of YouTube, one of the most used apps in India, called YouTube Go, was launched for those with access to slower speed Internet connection.
Notably, two years ago, India was among the first countries to receive YouTube's offline viewing feature. YouTube recently launched its Kids app in India as well.
Other initiatives launched on the occasion of Google's 18th-anniversary focused heavily on data saving and artificial intelligence, including Chrome data saving mode, Google Play 2G surfing, and Google News Lite.
"Our goal has not just been to help more Indians get online — but also to help Indians create the online experience they want; one that serves their needs and enables them to have an impact on the entire world," Caesar Sengupta, Vice President of Google's Next Billion Users division said at the event. "So, we have been thinking about how to build products and services for this wave of new users — products that work for any level of connectivity, in local Indian languages, and across the devices that are most frequently used in India."
The company is certainly focusing on India. In September, India was the first country in the world where it launched its messenger app Allo. For the Allo launch party in New Delhi, Google sponsored a video sketch by the comedy group AIB through the messenger app. The company is really trying to get the word out about its products. Google has also promised that it will launch a Hindi version of Google Assistant soon.
Along with promoting and launching products in India, Google has rolled out many initiatives here to try and connect Indians to the Internet. One of the biggest programs is called Google Station, as part of which the company is working with the government to bring Internet connectivity to 400 railway stations across the country. Google will provide free WiFi service to users at the station in partnership with RailTel.
"This is a fact. In India today, the fastest Internet connections you can experience are at railway stations, outside of a few high rises with 100Mbps connections," Rajan Anandan, VP of Google India, had said in an earlier interview with HuffPost India.
Google avoided Facebook's mistake in trying to bring Indians online. The social network company had tied up with selected network providers to provide free Internet to users under its Free Basics program. But the catch was that only a limited number of websites were free. The Net Neutrality community objected and, eventually, the program was shut down because of TRAI's historic verdict on disallowing differential pricing plans by network providers.
"The Indian consumer's appetite for data is unbelievable," Rajan had said. "We can't obviously provide WiFi everywhere, but it's clear that WiFi everywhere is a great idea. We want to make sure that Indians are able to access the full Internet."
Google's other initiative, called Internet Saathi, has taken a more social approach. Under this program, rural women are being introduced to the Internet in partnership with the Tata Trust. Internet Saathi has entered its second phase, after the first phase which covered 5,000 villages was completed. So far, according to Google, the program has had an impact on over a million people.
"Internet usage by women in rural areas continues to remain a challenge," Google India Marketing Head, Sapna Chadha, said in a blog post. "Only 1 in 10 Internet users in rural India is a woman. With this program, we are creating an enabling environment that empowers them while also bridging the technology gender divide."
The next phase aims to cover over 3 lakh villages in India having an impact on a total of 20 lakh people in all. The program focuses on providing basic Internet training to women so that they can spread digital awareness in villages in the area where they live.
"We at Google knew that we can provide the technology to educate women. Digital literacy is important in India. We want to bring more people online," Chadha said at the recently held Women Will event at Global Citizen India.
"When we were first given the devices, I was afraid that I might break it," an Internet saathi, Majulaben Naranbhai Gamar from Mahudi, Gujarat, told HuffPost India. "But the people who were working with us were very helpful. We learned how to search on the Internet and they showed us a lot of videos. Now, I learn how to make different kinds of purses and sewing art through YouTube."
Google's whole play is to make people notice the company more, be it by providing free Internet, or digital education or through the apps people use and the Google products they own. The company is creating more awareness about itself among Indian consumers.
"Over the last year, we have noticed something important about improving our products in India: it makes them better for everyone around the world," CEO Sundar Pichai had said earlier this year. "In an increasingly mobile-first world, India gives us early insights into the future of the Internet."