Google holds 'unique position in SA'

Read time 7min 10sec
For every second of every day, there are more potential customers for Google in SA, says country director Luke McKend.
For every second of every day, there are more potential customers for Google in SA, says country director Luke McKend.

Google has become a name synonymous with the Internet. So powerful is the brand that it is used as a verb to describe the activity of searching online.

Luke McKend, Google SA country director, recently sat down for an hour with ITWeb senior news journalist Admire Moyo to discuss the company's offerings and how they relate to the South African market, among other issues.

AM: What sort of opportunities does Google see in the South African market?

LM: Google is fortunate to be in SA because it is still a growing Internet market, which is somewhat different to more mature Internet economies where Internet penetration is already extremely high. That is great news for companies like Google because it means literally for every second of every day, there are more potential customers. That's a unique situation to be in because few industries can say they have a new customer to reach every second of every day.

The initial growth of the Internet in SA was traditional in the sense that it was driven by desktop and laptop computers. But the real shift in the past 18 months or so has been the phenomenally rapid move to mobile. So the story of the growth of the Internet in SA is synonymous with the growth of mobile. Pretty much, each new Internet user is, in fact, a mobile user.

That represents opportunity and challenge for business in the sense that many companies have dipped their toes in the water in respect to getting customers online as well as digitising their business. However, they have done this from the desktop point of view. So there is a challenge and opportunity for business to really shift that point of interaction to mobile. That is something we expect to see developing in SA and the rest of Africa. In fact, this is very different from what is happening in other parts of the world, particularly in more mature Internet economies.

In SA, people used to think of the Internet as a separate thing from real life. In the past, you might have thought: 'I am going to a Web site to shop online.' People don't think like that anymore; what they do is they just say: 'I am going shopping' and they go online. It's now a seamless, completely integrated facet of our life. To talk of a separate digital life or digital world today, I think, is completely redundant. Digital runs through everything we do both from a consumer and business point of view.

AM: What needs to be in place for SA to boost Internet penetration in the country?

There are a lot of factors that determine whether people go online. There's basic infrastructure that needs to be built. In SA, we are quite fortunate that the metropolitan areas are well-covered with lots of competing players delivering relatively robust infrastructure. I think our primary challenge at the moment is to extend that experience to people in the rural areas and to make sure everybody in SA has the quality of access that enables them to be what we consider a successful Internet user. So the challenge is how to reach everybody with great infrastructure.

Challenge number two is around price from the consumer point of view. Having Internet experience on a low-end device that doesn't cost much money has to be the goal. We are starting to see a number of devices coming into the market that are in the sub-R500 range. I think the challenge with these devices is to make sure they enable users to have quality Internet access. So there is tension between price and the quality of Internet access that the device offers.

The price of data is another issue. Here there are a number of things that can happen - competitive pressures tend to drive prices down. So what should be done to introduce more competition in SA? There are issues relating to the regulation of spectrum to the available operators. There are several questions that need to be asked as to how to make spectrum more freely available.

Internet access is a huge problem. Google, at the moment, is mostly focusing on trying to figure out how to change the regulatory environment to be able to free up spectrum primarily through the TV white space programme. Continuous engagement is the key to ensure this happens. Government doesn't always stay the way it was, so you need to always engage on regular basis to ensure these things work.

AM: In which areas is the company looking to invest?

LM: We've always felt very strongly that we need to be a contributing partner in developing the Internet ecosystem in SA. As a result, we have done a range of different things. For example, we have unveiled a programme that enables people to launch Web sites for free. We have also been focusing on capacity-building, especially in small business and young people to make them digitally literate. We have invested heavily in SA in a programme, called Digify, designed to give young people the opportunity to develop their digital skills through a big company environment which gives them enough skills to be employable immediately.

Google has also invested in some solar plants in SA, as well as in exploring TV white space for rural and urban areas.

AM: Google has a number of innovations, like driverless cars, etc. When are we likely to see these in SA?

LM: Google has some sexy projects like driverless cars and the Google Loon project and I would love to see some of them here. However, I am not exactly sure how a self-driving car will fare in Johannesburg.

The real key for Google is to make sure its products are relevant for users in the countries they are in. A self-driving car might be a fantastic addition to, for example, California. However, I am not sure our immediate need in SA will be to drive a self-driving car in Joburg, or in Accra, Lagos, Kampala, etc.

One of the issues we are trying to solve in Africa is Internet access. Once people have Internet access, it must be useful to them. Unfortunately, what we still see in SA and the rest of Africa, there is a lot less local content in comparison with other markets. We want to stimulate the creation of local content among locals. We know people love local content through Google searches.

AM: Other Google products like Google+ and Glass have failed to gain traction. What would you attribute this to?

LM: Google has built a different bunch of products over time. It has always tried to make forays into new areas. Whether the product would have survived or not, we would have learnt many lessons. With Glass, for instance, the fact that it did not reach the consumer ultimately is not a problem because we learnt a lot through Glass. Virtually everything that we learnt is now embedded in an Android Watch, for instance. So the lessons you can take from all these innovations are super important to us. When I look at Google+, I think it was an interesting experiment. There are some interesting things that have come out of it; for example, Google Photos.

AM: The Film and Publication Board has issued the Draft Online Regulation Policy. How will this affect Google?

LM: We deal with regulations wherever we are in the world and we attempt to comply with regulations as much as possible. Of course, we are in favour of more freely available Internet access. We will continue to engage with the board to ensure that sort of freedom exists in SA as well.

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