Desperate for a win in social, Google app 'Neighbourly' lures urban Indians

Google has put a lot of time and effort into its new crowdsourcing app, which has thoughtful privacy features and uses India as its launchpad. Yet a graveyard of failed products and formidable competitors in the space means that success will not be easy.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Google, a few weeks ago, further solidified its ambitions in the social network category by extending its hyperlocal, crowdsourced question-and-answer app experiment Neighbourly from the global beta version rolled out in Mumbai in May this year to a rollout that now spans five more Indian cities that include Ahmedabad, Coimbatore, Mysore, Vizag, and Kota.

The app is a lot like Quora in its basic functionality. A city's self-styled expert on topics like 'best restaurants to eat in' or 'safest parks to take a walk in' can share or answer questions posed by other residents, especially newer ones looking to find a safe and comfortable foothold in a new environment. In the latest version of the app, users can ask questions using an enhanced voice input that accommodates eight Indian languages with more being added in the near future.

Before we examine the originality of the enterprise, it's probably a good idea to ask: "Why launch in India?" The most obvious answer points to Indian smartphone usage, currently not only gargantuan with over 340 million users, but also destined to scale to even more eye-popping heights with a staggering 1 billion users yet to get devices and connect to the internet. Where most of the world in the West or even recent El Dorados like China have reached saturation, the opportunity to mine India's mountain of data and monetise it is unprecedented and lip smacking to both Indian and foreign outfits like Google.

Within this narrative is India's urbanization. It has been very slow when compared to China, but is still happening at a clip much faster than most other places on earth. According to The Guardian, UN projections imagine 416 million more people will live in cities by 2050, compared with 255 million in China.

This means that trainloads of people keep arriving in India's megalopolises every day without a clue as to what the trustworthy venues are for shopping, eating, socialising, and playing; where daughters can wander without getting harassed; or which are the neighbourhoods where landlords reject Muslim renters. The fact that this great migration may not be clustering around traditional kinship groups makes this even harder, and trust an even greater priority.

Enter Neighbourly, which attempts to solve that problem for urban-bound Indians.

Also read: Local languages are crucial to success for tech outfits in India

"We think the future of the internet looks like the next billion users," says Josh Woodward, a product manager at Google, in the Guardian piece.

Which, of course, will generate the next few hundred billion dollars in revenue. With $1 billion in mostly ad-related revenue garnered from India annually so far, Google knows that there's much more gold in these fields than anywhere else. Yet there are other reasons for this move.

The company has -- catastrophically, some would say -- missed the boat on social networking, messaging, payments, and e-commerce both worldwide and in India, which is quite an impressive list of misses. Facebook, along with WhatsApp, and Amazon have already blazed fiery trails of their own in the country.

The upshot is that Google has had an earnest India campaign so far, but nothing that has really quickened the pulse. It has provided free Wi-Fi in 400 locations, including some of the major train stations across the country. It has introduced a payments service called Tez, which has already seen some decent traction, but it has not yet achieved the clout of giants PayTM and WhatsApp in reach and usage.

The company has, however, worked hard with local language publishers, and its voice-powered Assistant is already available in eight languages, something that could give it a significant edge as regional languages become key to tapping the vast non-English population.

It seems like it's now or never for the search giant to both claw itself a space in social and make serious headway in a country with maximum top-line growth potential. And it thinks it can do so by leveraging one sub-category of the social space that still hasn't been mined comprehensively: Local networking.

See: Amazon's Hindi website shows how badly e-commerce needs India's non-English-speaking shoppers

Crowdsourced Neighbourly is an app that appears to provide users with the one most sought after utility in these times of Cambridge Analytica skullduggery: Privacy.

Users of the app don't have to cough up personal information, and photos are not stored. Users need to pledge to keep the community "safe and free" of inappropriate posts, whatever that means. Having seen the spectacular ability of WhatsApp to become the platform for inciting violence and hate in India and Burma -- lynchings of Muslims and the genocide of the Rohingya were widely fomented using such means -- this will be an area that Google will have to monitor zealously.

So what's the catch? Well, like anything else in the tech world, success and failure can be very difficult to predict. It was easy to see how a PayTM or a WhatsApp could win in a country where much of the population was denied banks or easy payment solutions, and where these two were early movers. But for Neighbourly to work, it needs to spread like wildfire, and it is unclear whether Indians either want or need to embrace this new mode of accessing and spreading information.

There's also Google's graveyard of failed products that could have been pioneers in all of the areas that are hot today: Social, chat, voice, and messaging. There are so many that keeping track of them is itself a considerable task. But lets try: Remember Allo, a WhatsApp-like chat? Or What about Messager, a pure SMS app? How about Google Chat, an instant messenger? Or Google Voice, which allows you to make calls? Or even Hangouts, the big daddy that has most or all of the utilities of the aforementioned products? I'm not even getting to other misfires like Orkut, Reader, Wave, and Buzz.

What Google has going for it is Facebook's flatlining user base -- youth especially are abandoning the service in droves and migrating to services like Snapchat. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco hasn't helped any.

If the search giant can further exploit these vulnerabilities, and find innovative ways to drive traffic to Neighbourly while leveraging its commendable capabilities in the local language arena, maybe there's a real chance that something significant will happen with the app. Until then, it's all just talk.

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