Listen to this story
Voice Assistants Will Bring the Next Billion Users Online
Voice-forward phones could make the internet more accessible in the developing world
A wide range of new phones were shown off at Mobile World Congress last month. At one end of the scale, Samsung introduced three variations of its premium Galaxy S10, though many of the headlines went to another new model, the Galaxy Fold, with its innovative folding screen — and almost $2,000 price tag.
But for a large portion of the developing world, the most important announcements came from companies like LG, Nokia, and Orange. LG announced the K40, K50, and Q60 and Nokia revealed the 3.2 and 4.2 model phones, all mid-to-entry level Android smartphones, which will sell for about $200 and under. Each has a dedicated hardware button to launch the Google Assistant.
The Orange Sanza and WizPhone WP006, both 4G-feature phones, running KaiOS (an operating system based on the abandoned Firefox OS project) were also announced and will retail for under $20. The Sanza is intended for the mostly French-speaking countries of West Africa, while the WP006 will be sold from vending machines in Indonesia for about $7. These phones have even more prominent microphone buttons — they’re voice-forward phones, also powered by Google Assistant.
This is a deliberate part of Google’s strategy to reach the next billion users. On average, more than a million people a day came online for the first time in 2018, with a similar number likely for this year. And those people are, more often than not, found in fast-growing international markets like Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
We need to look not at Silicon Valley or London, but to places like Sao Paulo, Bangalore, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Lagos to truly understand where the internet is going. — Caesar Sengupta, Google
Amazon has focused Alexa on key, wealthier markets, and currently supports only six languages and regional dialects. Google Assistant, meanwhile, has the advantage of being integrated with Android devices and has grown to be available in 30 languages. A lot of that growth comes in languages spoken in the “next billion countries” — in India, for example, Google Assistant understands Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu, as well as English.
One of the claimed benefits of voice input is that it helps people in areas of high illiteracy gain access to mobile devices and the internet. Another benefit is said to be that some languages, such as Mandarin, have complicated character sets which are difficult to type.
But this isn’t always the case; in Indonesia, for example, where the WizPhone will launch, about 95 percent of the country is literate. And while it’s true that speaking is generally faster than typing, modern phones already have easier software keyboard input methods such as Pinyin.
Putting Google Assistant into phones for new internet users has other advantages — it doesn’t require a powerful phone to run, so you can have a decent experience on a $7 phone, and it doesn’t use a lot of data, which is a real boon in countries like Nicaragua and Kenya where 1GB of data can cost almost 10 percent of your income.
A less tangible benefit of voice-forward phones is that there’s a reduced requirement to understand or learn legacy user-interface conventions. People in many countries, especially in the West, have been using computers since they were children, and smartphones for around a decade. They have grown up with buttons and tabs and carousels. But someone from rural India coming online for the first time today doesn’t need to learn those conventions if they have a voice-forward phone — they can speak naturally to their devices to achieve what they want to do.
In these fast-growing countries like India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico, voice is often the primary way users interact with their devices because it’s natural, universal, and the most accessible input method for people who are starting to engage with technology for the first time in their lives.
A generation of new mobile users, who came online in Africa in the late 2000s, led to the creation of new SMS-based micropayment networks like M-PESA and Zaad, free from legacy banking systems and innovative in ways that Western money apps are only recently catching up to. A whole new generation of voice-forward devices, free from legacy interfaces, might also drive innovation in the ways people interact with businesses and services for the next billion users.