Google Sees Cellphone As Ticket Into Africa

Digital Content

Google, the world's most popular search engine, had to tailor its offerings to work better on cellphones if it was to make real headway in Africa, the group said last week.

In a continent with a dearth of computers, the cellphone is the only way most people can get online. And as only 22% of cellphone users have computers, even in relatively wealthy SA, Google's local branch is making mobile search technologies its priority.

Google set up an office in SA last year, poaching Stafford Masie from networking company Novell as its country manager. Yesterday it held its first local media briefing, and was big on promises if thin on figures. Masie would not say how many people it employed in SA, although "a lot" were South Africans who had worked abroad for Google and had come home to launch the local branch.

Most of the staff are sales people out to convince advertisers to switch some of their adspend from TV and radio to online. "We are seeing an increase in advertisers in SA since we announced our presence here. We are building capacity because there's a need for direct interaction," Masie said.

"Our goal is to hire as many really brilliant people as we can," said Google's vice-president of engineering, Douglas Merrill.

Google was launched in the 1990s with the ambitious aim of organising all the information in the world and making it universally accessible. Considering that 80% of information is still not online, it has a long way to go. But the information already online had to be made available to everybody, and in Africa that meant via cellphones, Merrill said."The majority of people coming online will be doing it through mobile. We have to find better ways to conduct a search over a mobile phone."

That could involve entering key search words by SMS or speaking into the phone to tell the search engine what you are looking for. Users should also be able to consult maps on their phones and have the directions sent to them via SMS.

"We have a lot of work still to do on mobiles," Merrill said. The race to migrate traditional internet services to the far more densely populated cellphone market has already seen rival player Yahoo declare that more people would soon use its services via cellphones than through computers.

So far, 600-million people have downloaded Yahoo's oneSearch software so they can search for internet content via their cellphones.

Business Day