Google SMS Suite – What is the future?

Google’s interest in the mobile space is well known and I have also highlighted it in many of my earlier posts. Google has recently launched Google Voice, Android platform and Advertising platform for mobile applications. Google has been actively looking at expanding its influence in the mobile space in the emerging markets. In order to make its services more accessible, Google has already launched SMS based search and voice based yellow pages in India, China and many African countries. It recently launched Google SMS suite in Uganda. Google describes the service as –

Google SMS is a suite of mobile applications that allows you to find information on topics as diverse as sexual & reproductive health, and agriculture to sports scores and weather. It also includes a new marketplace application, Google Trader, that will help buyers and sellers find each other; use it to buy and sell electronics, crops, tools, cars, properties, or anything else that you need or have.

Google SMS has been developed jointly between MTN, Grameen Foundation (GF) and Google on the initiative of Grameen. MTN is the largest operator in Uganda and has recently been in talks with the Bharti group of India for a merger deal. The service is very simple. It involves sending a query in the form of text or short descriptive question to a short code and based on the query, the results are sent beck to the user. It also has Google Trader which is a marketplace application that allows you to buy and sell goods and services on the phone using SMS. This service is free of cost to the consumers as an introductory offer but they need to pay the charges for the SMS they send out.

Does Google SMS Suite fit in Google’s Strategy?

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Google SMS suite is in line with Google’s mission. In fact it reflects the true essence of the mission by making information accessible to the people who are not connected via internet. Announcing the launch of Google SMS, Rachel Payne, Google Country Manager, Uganda said that

We seek to serve a broad base of people — not only those who can afford to access the Internet from the convenience of their workplace or with a computer at home. This not only includes traditional services such as sports scores and local news, but for the first time, also includes services such as health and agriculture tips

Why is Google interested in mobile space?

The mobile space is not only a lucrative business to get in but also provides a strategic fit to Google. Mobile industry is in many ways similar to the PC industry but in terms of evolution, it still has a long way to go. The ecosystem of mobile industry is not as open as that of the PC industry and hence Google feels that it will not be able to push its internet services as freely as it would like to on the mobile. Moreover, there is a growing realization that the future of internet is on mobile phones as the mobile phone user base is four times that of current internet user base. For many in emerging markets, the first internet experience is likely to be on a mobile phone and hence it is important for Google to expand into the mobile space and that too in emerging markets. The mobile internet penetration is low in emerging nations and therefore there is a need to launch SMS based services to be able to reach a larger base.

Google can later expand the SMS based services to it existing internet properties like social networking and email to give the initial experience to its users so that later on when they start to use the mobile internet, they graduate to Google’s internet services.

How is Google sourcing information for Google SMS?

Google worked with a number of local partners and communities starting with The Village Phone Operators who were the first set of focus group participants and product development advisors. Farmers in more distant villages created the highly local content through BROSDI (Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative), in collaboration with AppLab (Application Laboratory of Grameen Foundation). The Straight Talk Foundation and Marie Stopes International created content for the health tips in association with doctors, nurses, students and health workers.

Will Google SMS suite be successful?

I firmly believe that for any service to be successful, it must fulfill the following criteria

  1. It should be relevant to the users
  2. It should be easily accessible
  3. It should be priced at an optimal level (free is also a price point)
  4. It should be reliable
  5. It should be easy to use

Google SMS meets the user expectations on the first four criteria but I am not sure if the users would find it easy to use. Remembering the short code could be a problem and the text entered by users may not always return the best results. Moreover, people in the emerging markets are more comfortable talking to somebody on phone to get the information and hence it would be better for Google to have a voice platform/ call center where people can call-in to get the required information. It is for this very reason that the sms search has not been so popular in India.

Google has decided to go along with an operator (MTN) in Uganda. MTN has just 30% market share in Uganda and this would mean that the service would not be available to a majority of people in Uganda. The other operators would still feel threatened by this service even if no operator was part of the project as it has the potential to cannibalize into the subscription based sms services of mobile operators. This means that in many markets, Google may find it tough to expand due to operator resistance and may even be blocked by the operators.

Clearly, it is still early days for a verdict on Google SMS but it is definitely an interesting product and I would be keenly following the progress of this product. By the way, this service is similar to what Nokia has launched in India called the Nokia Life Tools.

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