BY Nitin Gajria 3 MINUTE READ

Not having important knowledge at hand can be more than just an inconvenience. It can have real-world consequences.

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at the average (or rather, to use statistician-speak “the most likely”)  South African, according to StatsSA’s latest figures (2011 Census). She’s a black woman who lives in Gauteng, in a formal dwelling that she shares with two or three other people. She’s around 25, and she speaks isiZulu. Let’s call her Buhle. 

Despite being in the most developed province of the country, Buhle has neither a computer nor a landline. However, since 2011 (when Buhle had a cellphone but was unlikely to have access to the internet or email), the rollout of fibre technologies to townships, free Wifi access in minibus taxis, and the penetration of smartphones mean that Buhle’s likely to now own a cellphone that can access the internet.

Every year, South African city dwellers spend anywhere from five to seven days in traffic, but Buhle’s taxi driver uses an app to guide him along faster routes, so she spends less time in traffic than she did in 2011. Having the whole internet at her fingertips on her smartphone makes it easier for Buhle to access that information, but it also takes up a lot of time to look up news, weather, and traffic individually. And, without knowing what to look for, Buhle might be missing out on vital information and amazing experiences. 

This dilemma is something technology companies are profoundly aware of and is one of the concerns raised about the smartphone revolution currently transforming the world. But it also highlights something new — a global spirit of technological innovation that is about to redefine the Internet, called “building for billions”. 

Building for billions means designing new technology for everyone from the very start of the design process. The people coming online through smartphones are using the internet in radically new ways, and there is a massive potential for creativity and innovation in trying to help them solve their problems with the technology they have in their hands.

The future of the internet will be written by developers who understand this, and by the people they’re building for – Buhle and her friends. More than ever, high-tech companies like Google need to focus on reshaping our apps, services, and platforms to work for the majority of the planet.

As a company we have to keep thinking about how we make sure our products are suiting the people who use them. This is not just Google, all companies need to do this. Creating teams to understand uses in different places is critical to this. Our Next Billion Users teams travel the world to hear about people’s Internet pain points and think up new solutions. This includes adapting our Search, Chrome, YouTube, and Maps apps to work for users with unreliable or intermittent connectivity, through reducing data consumption or allowing content to be taken offline for later use. 

Buhle is one of the billions we’re building for. And she personifies the three things we know users have come to expect from technology, irrespective of the platform: being helpful, being personal, and being frictionless.

Buhle expects technology to readily satisfy her curiosity and address her needs wherever she is. An example is Google Lens: She can seamlessly glean relevant information about the world around her though a visual image.

She expects technology to meet her demands with experiences that are tailored to her preferences and context, so she wants to use apps like Google Voice to speak to her devices and get a tailored response.

She expects technology to satisfy her impatience with fast, frictionless experiences. She doesn’t want to spend hours looking for pics of her baby niece. She wants to be able to have instant access to photos of “baby smiling”, across thousands of personal memories.

In short, Buhle no longer just wants answers to her direct queries – she and the technology she uses have long since evolved beyond that point. 

Nitin Gajria is Director at Google, Sub-Saharan Africa.