Google goes mobile in Africa

30 June 2009

Internet giant Google is targeting Africa’s mobile phone users with the introduction, starting in Uganda, of Google SMS, a suite of mobile applications which will allow people to access news, information and advice on health, agriculture, weather, sport and more via SMS (text).

According to a post on googleblog.blogspot.com this week, Google is aiming to reach a broader base of people, not only those who can afford to access the internet via computer from the convenience of their workplace or home.

In many places around the world, people are looking to their phones to find the information they need in their daily lives, says Google.

“This is especially true in Africa, which has the world’s highest mobile growth rate and where mobile phone penetration is six times internet penetration,” Google says. “One-third of the [world’s] population owns a mobile phone, and many more have access to one.

However, most mobile devices in Africa only have voice and SMS, or text, capabilities, and so Google has decided to focus its technological efforts on the continent on SMS.

The service is currently supported through MTN in Uganda only.

Google SMS suite

Google SMS is a suite of mobile applications that will allow people to access news and information via SMS.

It also includes Google Trader, a SMS-based marketplace application that helps buyers and sellers find each other. People can use the application to find, sell or buy any type of product or service, from used cars and mobile phones to crops, livestock and jobs.

Then there’s Google SMS Tips, an SMS-based query-and-answer service that enables a mobile phone user to have a web search-like experience: “You enter a free form text query, and Google’s algorithms restructure the query to identify keywords, search a database to identify relevant answers, and return the most relevant answer,” Google explains.

Unique partnerships

Both Google SMS Tips and Google Trader represent the fruits of unique partnerships among Google, the Grameen Foundation, MTN Uganda and other local organisations.

“We worked closely together as part of Grameen Foundation’s Application Laboratory to understand information needs and gaps, develop locally relevant and actionable content, rapidly test prototypes, and conduct multi-month pilots with the people who will eventually use the applications have truly been a global effort, and created with Ugandans, for Ugandans,” says Google.

“We’re just beginning. We can do a lot more to improve search quality and the breadth – and depth – of content on Google SMS, especially on Tips and Trader. Google SMS is by no means a finished product, but that’s what’s both exciting and challenging about this endeavour.”

SAinfo reporter

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