India startup touted as world's largest offline search engine

Get "online" without a data connection via SMS with the browser by Bangalore-based startup, Innoz.in, which seeks to connect the unconnected poor with featurephones to the information riches of the Web.
Written by Srinivas Kulkarni, Contributor on

For many of us, the Internet is part of our daily lives. We take for granted the consumption of Web-based information on multiple smart devices. Worldwide mobile phone sales totalled 455.6 million units in the third quarter of 2013, with smartphones accounting for 55 percent of the total, their highest share to date, according to Gartner.

But get this, 45 percent of these quarter three buyers didn't buy smartphones, and aren't connected to the Internet in a smart way. That's where this revolutionary startup is targeted.

Innoz aspires to connect the unconnected to information across the world wide web without the Internet. Dubbed "the offline Google", Innoz is rated by Forbes magazine as among the "top 5 startups" and the business has also made the the MIT TR35 Innovator list.

In his keynote at Wired 2013, Innoz co-founder Deepak Ravindran made an interesting claim: "I truly believe that there is an Internet offline." No, he doesn't mean cached access to Internet sites. "The way that I'm trying to achieve this is through a simple platform which is what we call SMS," he added.

Taking the well-trodden tech entrepreneurial path, Deepak started up in his college dorm, seeking to help people who didn't own smartphones. He and his roommates developed 55444.in--a service for accessing Internet tools via SMS. Up to November 2013 the service has processed over 1.3 billion requests from hundreds of millions of users globally.

SMS-based Internet

Innoz's flagship product, SmartSMS, provides a specific answer of up to 480 characters to an SMS query within seconds. There's an option to retrieve more information on the query if needed. Users text their query to 55444 and the software searches for an answer. The query can be on any topic--from what to wear for a job interview to who a particular actor is dating. Innoz works in partnership with Wikipedia, knowledge engine WolframAlpha, and other Internet resources to provide answers.


The SmartSMS product name conveys the notion of converting the 3 billion dumb phones currently in the market to smartphones.   

Innoz’s audience is the 77 percent of Indians still using feature phones. They don't have access to mobile Internet, smartphones, iPads, and etc. but do have SMS services. They have similar information needs to smartphone users, but an inability to meet them.

"We came across the problem ourselves while in college. We realised at that moment how useful an SMS service would be in India. And so we went ahead to solve the problem by capitalising on the idea," said Deepak in an e-mail interaction.

Deepak explains Innoz’s queries predominantly come from the Southern region (40 per cent) followed by the West (25 percent), with 20 percent and 15 per cent from the East and North zones, respectively. Not surprisingly, searches from Tier III and Tier IV cities (smaller cities) constitute the majority, and come in a variety of Indian local languages. Location-based queries such as the whereabouts of ATMs, restaurants, petrol stations etc. top the list of most searched on 55444. Movie reviews and movie timings are a close second, followed by searches on music information and lyrics.

Browse via SMS or data connection

Innoz built SMS Appstore for people who use apps like Facebook, Twitter or Evernote over SMS. Deepak says there are over 10,000 apps inside their SMS Appstore.

Its offline Web browser, "Brownie", announced at the WIRED conference in London, aims to bring the next billion online. Built on Android, the browser can work both in Internet mode and non-Internet mode. Using SMS technology at the backend, the browser can display any website in text mode without Internet. The app connects directly to SMS Appstore. For all these apps, users can opt between data or SMS mode to access and retrieve information. Brownie is also useful for those needing data access in dead zones or to avoid spending big bucks on roaming charges while abroad.

Brownie browser app that runs on SMS or data connection.

The strategic objective for Innoz is to leverage users' experience of offline Internet access via feature phones to drive adoption of online broadband usage as smartphone adoption accelerates. "We also want to launch Brownie OS so even an ordinary phone with no GPRS could have access to Internet applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Evernote and Gmail. There are over 3 billion dumbphones in the market. Innoz can make them all smart," added Ravindran.   

The goal is pretty simple he stated: "Connecting the unconnected. The dream is to make available the world of information to the less-fortunate, by using a simple, intuitive and affordable device that runs on SMS."

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