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.