With about one billion new users getting online in countries like Brazil, India, and Indonesia, it makes business sense for Google to develop its offline capabilities in order to target their business just like any other Silicon Valley company would want to. However, it still does not answer the question as to why it would have to develop its offline capabilities to get the new business.
The answer lies in the fact that the aforementioned countries, unlike the United States and other developed nations, do not have more broadband at homes and faster connectivity on smartphones. These countries generally have 2-G speeds and a high premium on data. By providing for these slow and costly connectivity scenarios, Google is also improving the way it works for users in developed countries with high-speed connections at their disposal. This would ensure Google’s reliability and a good customer experience even at those times when Google itself is beyond the reach of the end user.
The offline work has been going on for the past few years on Search, YouTube, Maps, Chrome, and Docs and each of these branches have achieved some level of success in functionality even in the absence of internet accessibility. Maps will have the capability to download cities on a user’s smartphone; Chrome will allow you to view saved pages even in the absence of Wi-Fi; YouTube Red will automatically download a user’s favourite songs; Googling will be possible on Android phones when there is no internet connection; searches will queue up in such scenarios, and the user will receive result alerts when they are back online.
“Google Search started in the desktop world. And there are several things that come with desktops we kind of take for granted. More often than not when people have the internet on the desktop, it’s pretty constant. It doesn’t fail on you. There’s a constant bandwidth. They’re guaranteed to have anything they do on desktop succeed,” says the product manager, Shekhar Sharad, at Google Search. “Then smartphones happened . . .Then people in the developing world—who hadn’t even seen a computer before—had a mini-supercomputer in their hands. But we had to deal with a paradigm with users and network connectivity. Unlike desktops, there’s no guarantee of that connection.”
This motivated Sharad and his team at Google Search to work on and introduce the search queues and streamline Googling results for these 2G regions in a way that 90% fewer data was exhausted. This involved packaging the media and typography with greater efficiency thereby ensuring savings on bandwidth.
“One of my personal mantras is Search should never fail,” says Sharad. “When people come to Search, they have a question they need answered. Unlike a social network, there’s something they need an answer to.”
For YouTube, it was a bigger challenge to offer buffer-less video streaming, which the developed world is so used to, in slower connectivity zones. Jay Akkad, product lead on the Next Billion Users at YouTube, has a penchant for building efficient systems and has been able to provide users the option of choosing their resolution when streaming or saving videos. What this means is that the user can compromise on the quality of video selecting a lower resolution where connections are slow thereby speeding up the streaming or downloading and using up less data in the bargain.
In 2014, YouTube first introduced its offline mode in its app for India, the Philippines, and Indonesia, later reaching out with the offline feature to additional markets including the Middle East. Recently, it has introduced a new feature in India terming it the “Smart Offline” allowing users to schedule their video downloads during off-peak hours when data is cheaper.
“What we worked on was a way to share videos, with anyone on the app, peer to peer, seamlessly from one phone to another,” says Akkad. “We don’t have that in the U.S. In the U.S.; we think the model for sharing is, ‘I’d just send you a link.’ That’s where we focus our effort here.”
Connectivity and data overages are not only a problem restricted to India and other developing countries but a problem in the U.S. as well. It’s pretty much a given for people to lose connectivity under bridges and other places like concrete buildings and garages which are supposed to be the worst. This is the reason why Google uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) on YouTube Red to automatically download songs that the AI thinks you are likely to prefer. “The music app does a good job where it automatically caches a lot of music offline they know you listen to, which is easy to do with music,” says Akkad.
American users also experience scary overages, with progressively limited data plans. “In the U.S., cell networks are not as congested as India, but they’re still a pinch on the wallet. So we’re applying the same learnings and product solutions as we are in developing markets back in the U.S. when they make sense,” says Akkad. “The user expectation is a little bit different,” he accepts. For example, in the U.S. one would be reluctant to download a clip for viewing it 12 hours later.
As far as YouTube VR is concerned, it is “a problem we need to solve for the U.S. is, how do we do an awesome job of providing a VR or 360 experience? VR rendered in 4K is 4K times 12. Multiply the bandwidth of a 4K video, at 20Mbps, times 12, you’re beyond the capacity of what most users can do,” says Akkad. “In those situations, things like offline, aggressive pre-caching makes sense. We’re developing those things in the same way we would in emerging markets, but applied in a different problem set.”
Google Search is a relatively more difficult issue to address unlike, for example, Google Maps, which one can download on his/her smartphone. “Search is a little bit of an unbounded problem,” says Sharad. “We’re not really sure what the users will come and ask us.”
“The main reason we haven’t gone hog wild on trying stuff offline [is] it’s very important that we serve the user every time in a consistent manner,” says Sharad. “If I get a result from Google that is not right for whatever reason, my trust in Google may go down. We want people to know that when ‘I go to Google, I get consistently good results.’ I don’t want results for result’s sake.”
On a positive note he adds, “Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll be able to come up with something exciting for you guys.”