How Google’s Amitabh Kumar Singhal plans to increase Indian Internet users to 500 million by 2017
Google search has answers to most of your questions. But not all. IfAmitabh Kumar Singhal succeeds in making the ‘Star Trek computer’ he set out to build, it just might. At Google, the 46-year old India-born executive is the search czar. Google fields over 100-billion search queries every month, a service which generated most of its $55 billion (Rs 3.3 lakh crore) revenue in 2013.
In India, there is also another important target on his mind-—helping increase the number of internet users to 500 million by 2017. That is more than a twofold increase in less than three years, demonstrating the scale of Google’s ambitions in the country.
“That’s almost half the country. Imagine how that would change the fabric of this country,” said Singhal, whose parents live in Dehradun and who calls himself a “native mountain goat from Uttaranchal.”
Singhal’s India visit follows that of Google product chief Sundar Pichai, who was in the country in September and launched the first phones based on the Android One platform.
Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was in India and the major themes of his conversation was to rapidly expand internet access, illustrating the importance of India as a market and how vital it is for companies such as Google and Facebook to bring users online quickly and onto their services first.
With new competitors, the increasingly mobile nature of users and social networks, the way people look for information is changing rapidly. Ask Singhal about the future of search, and he says that it should be like the “perfect assistant,” always present by your side.
“It’s not intrusive, fades in the background and you can ask it anything you want and periodically it will tap you on the shoulder and tell you what you need to know,” said Singhal, who led the team which rewrote Google’s search engine way back in 2001.
Singhal grew in the seventies watching Star Trek reruns on state-run television, wanting to build Captain Kirk’s computer, or the perfect assistant, which has answers to all questions. After graduating from IIT- Roorkee, he went to study in the United States.
His days now are usually packed with meetings–mostly about old projects that Google has started and about new projects that will keep Google on top of its game. Continuously improving the search experience is a priority for him.
So how long before we have the perfect assistant? “As I start thinking it is perfect, people start asking things it can’t do. So my job is never done,” said Singhal, who has been working on search technologies for nearly 23 years now.
India, which is home to over 1.2 billion people, is becoming increasingly important in Google’s scheme of things. To make his point, he whips out his new Nexus phone and asks in Hindi to show him to “Nai Dilli Railway Station.” Google Maps pops up with his destination charted out in Hindi.
“In the mobile world, we have to understand natural languages,” said Singhal, who visits his parents in Dehradun twice every year. The company launched Hindi voice search on Monday at an event in Delhi.
Google also launched the Indian Language Internet Alliance to promote Indic content on the web at the event. “The Star Trek computer which was only available to a few Starship users is now going to be available to everyone in the world,” said Singhal, who is here to participate in the 25th alumni gathering of the class of 1989 at IIT- Roorkee.
In September, Google launched its ambitious Android One initiative for affordable smartphones. At the time, Pichai had said that the company has plans to take up more India-specific initiatives.
Bringing search to local languages is not an easy task. “People mix languages all the time. The level of detail you need to work at is really high,” he said. For instance, he pointed out, people might just say “Amitabh Bachchan ki photo,” out of which photo is not a Hindi word. The Indian market also poses fundamental challenges to Internet companies like Google.
The first challenge is to bring local content online and the second is to increase access to the internet. “Even though we can bring devices with our partners, the connectivity has to be affordable, non-stop, and high bandwidth,” said Singhal.
As the search giant grows, it is also increasingly being scrutinised by various governments on issues of privacy and its alleged abuse of its dominant market position. “Genuinely we are a responsible company but with our size and impact on this world, we get scrutinised and it is only natural,” said Singhal.