Voice-forward phones: Google Assistant and the next billion users

Google’s strategy to reach the next billion internet users is to put Google Assistant on cheap featurephones.

A range of new flagship phones got shown off at the MWC19 trade fair. At one end of the scale, Samsung introduced three variations of its premium Galaxy S10 and a new model, the Galaxy Fold, with its innovative folding screen and almost $2,000 price tag. At the other, the Wizphone WP006, a phone made only for Indonesia (where it will be sold in vending machines), costing about $7.

The WP006 is a featurephone; it has a hardware keyboard, no touchscreen, 4G connectivity, runs on KaiOS (an operating system based on the abandoned FirefoxOS project), and has a prominent microphone button—it’s a voice-forward phone, powered by Google Assistant.

WizPhone WP006. Copyright © Indo5

It wasn’t the only phone of its type on display. The Orange Sanza is a similar featurephone, with similar specs, also running KaiOS. It’s slightly more expensive at around $20, and is intended for the mostly French-speaking countries of Africa (Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and so on). It too is voice-forward, with a prominent microphone button that launches Google Assistant

Sanza, by Orange. Photo by TNW.

Of the more established brands, LG announced the K40, K50, and Q60, three new ‘budget’ smartphones, and Nokia revealed the sub-$200 3.2 and 4.2 model phones. Each of these five phones has a dedicated hardware button to launch the Google Assistant.

Phones for the next billion users

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 last year, with a similar number likely for this year. And those people are, more often than not, found in fast-growing 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’s Alexa is very home-bound and so has focused on key wealthier markets, with support for six languages (and regional dialects). Google Assistant, meanwhile, has the advantage of being on phones and so has grown to be available in 80 countries in 30 languages, and a lot of that growth comes in languages spoken in the ‘next billion’ countries; in India, for example, it understands Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu, as well as English.

The advantages of going voice-forward

One of the claimed benefits of voice input is that it helps people in areas of high illiteracy (especially those in rural areas) be able to use phones better; another is said to be that some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, 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% of the country are 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 onto phones for new internet users has other advantages: for example, it doesn’t require a powerful phone to run, so you can have a good-enough experience on a $7 phone; and it doesn’t use a lot of data, which is a real boon in countries where 1GB of data can cost almost 10% of income.

Voice-forward interfaces

A less tangible benefit of voice-forward phones is that there’s a lowered requirement to have to learn legacy UI conventions. People in many countries—especially in the West—have been using computers since they were children, and smartphones for at least ten years, and have grown up with buttons and tabs and carousels. But someone from rural India coming online for the first time today, using a voice-forward phone, doesn’t need to learn those conventions; they can speak naturally to their phones to achieve what they want to do.

In fast-growing countries 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.

Brad Abrams, Google

A generation of new mobile users coming online in Africa 10-12 years ago lead to the creation of new SMS-based micropayment networks like M-PESA and Zaad, free from legacy banking systems and innovating in ways that Western money apps are only recently catching up on. I think 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.

Also published on Medium.