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谷歌在印度:希望、梦想和机遇

Vivienne Walt 2019年02月28日

在这个庞大但充满挑战的市场上,这家硅谷巨头选择保持耐心,而非追逐利润。谷歌在印度学到的教益,可能对世界其他地区有着更加重要的意义。

去年12月的一天晚上,当我到达印度最有人气的YouTube明星之一的家中时,新德里郊区诺伊达已经是一片漆黑。然而,在门口迎接我的人却颠覆了YouTube一词让人联想到的所有模式化形象。尼莎·马杜利卡是一位60岁的老奶奶,身穿一袭长袍,一双凉鞋,头发扎成马尾辫。她安顿我坐在起居室的扶手椅上,然后拿出自制的饼干招待我。“你一定要尝尝。”她用印地语说。声音小得近乎耳语,她的儿子在一旁客串翻译。

马杜利卡的YouTube烹饪频道拥有650万用户,并且还在以每月新增20万粉丝的速度持续增长中。她在晚年大获成功,几乎没有任何先兆——考虑到印度正在发生的大变革,这似乎是一个再合适不过的例证。简而言之,这也可以用来描述印度对所有数字化事物姗姗来迟的拥抱。在过去的两年里,数亿印度人首次登陆互联网。这一激增是由于该国政府出台了旨在让印度人上网的激进政策;另一个重要因素是,数据和智能手机的价格暴跌。据业内人士估计,目前约有3.9亿印度人是活跃的互联网用户,几乎占总人口的三分之一,是2016年的两倍。这么说吧,印度的互联网用户比所有生活在美国的人都多。

一代人之前,美国、欧洲和中国相继为互联网增添了数量同样巨大的用户群体。但在这些国家,这一进程是稳定而渐进的,从拨号调制解调器到笨拙的Wi-Fi,再到移动技术。印度的情况与此迥然不同:数亿印度人完全跳过了早期的互联网,许多人甚至从未接触过计算机。相反,他们对互联网的体验,是从疯狂下载应用和观看手机视频开始的。2017年,印度人下载的应用数量首次超过美国人。去年,印度成为安卓手机上最大的移动数据消费国。负责印度和东南亚业务的谷歌副总裁拉詹·阿南丹表示:“我们还没有在世界其他地区见过这种用户行为。”谷歌不仅是安卓手机软件的供应商,还是YouTube的拥有者。十多年前,YouTube在硅谷横空出世,引领用户生成视频之先河;它现在拥有2.45亿印度用户。“印度可能是世界上第一个视频优先的数字经济体。”他说。

IT IS ALREADY DARK in the New Delhi suburb of Noida on a night in December when I arrive at the home of one of the biggest YouTube stars in all of India. Yet the person who greets me at the door defies every stereotype the word YouTuber evokes. Nisha Madhulika is a 60-year-old grandmother dressed in a long robe and sandals, with her hair tied in a ponytail. After settling me in an armchair in the living room, she plies me with home-baked cookies. “You must try them,” she says, in a voice barely above a whisper, using her son to translate from Hindi.

Given the transformation unfolding in India, it seems fitting that Madhulika, with 6.5 million subscribers to her YouTube cooking channel and 200,000 more signing on each month, has hit it big late in life and with little forewarning. That, in a nutshell, could just as well describe India’s belated embrace of all things digital. Hundreds of millions of Indians have logged on to the Internet for the first time in the past two years. The surge is owing to aggressive government policies aimed at connecting Indians online and plummeting prices for data and smartphones. About 390 million Indians are now active Internet users, almost a third of the population and twice as many as were connected in 2016, according to industry estimates. For context, that’s more Indian Internet users than all the people who live in the United States.

A generation ago, the U.S., Europe, and then China added similarly huge numbers of people to the Internet. Yet the process in those areas was steady and gradual, moving from dial-up modems through clunky Wi-Fi to mobile tech. Contrast that with India, where hundreds of millions of people have skipped the early-stage Internet altogether; many have never even touched a computer. Instead, they have started online by downloading apps and watching mobile-phone videos at a furious rate. Since 2017, Indians have begun downloading more apps than Americans do. And last year, India became the biggest consumer of mobile data on Android phones. “We have not seen this kind of user behavior anywhere else in the world,” says Rajan Anandan, vice president for India and Southeast Asia for Google, the purveyor of Android mobile-phone software. Google also owns YouTube, which started the phenomenon of user-generated video in Silicon Valley more than a decade ago and now has 245 million Indian users. “This is perhaps the world’s first video-first digital economy,” he says.

印度最有人气的YouTube明星之一尼莎·马杜利卡在录制她的烹饪秀。图片来源:Photograph by Vivek Singh for Fortune

事实证明,对于那些竞相争夺全球市场份额的西方公司来说,印度陡峭的数字发展轨迹具有强大的吸引力。也许没有哪家公司能像谷歌那样,如此形象地体现出在印度开展业务需要克服的巨大障碍,以及它可能带来的巨大回报。谷歌的增长取决于找到更多用户,因为广告贡献了其80%以上的利润。鉴于谷歌和其他西方互联网巨头基本上被中国拒之门外,没有哪个国家比印度更有机会为它们的业务增添数亿消费者。投资银行Jefferies驻旧金山的一位分析师布伦特·蒂尔表示:“这是世界上数一数二的人口大国,其收入水平比其他地方低很多,所以很有挑战性。”不过,在他看来,坐拥1000多亿美元现金的谷歌完全有能力花费数年时间来打造印度业务,而不必为成本问题劳神。“他们可以动用强大得令人难以置信的资产基础,来追逐这个潜在的数字消费大国。”蒂尔说。

去年晚些时候走访印度各地时,这一切都清晰无误地展示在我面前。无论是在偏远的村庄,还是在广阔的孟买和新德里都市区,我都尝试着了解谷歌是如何在印度建设其基础设施,以及这个国家如何成为该公司的一个重要实验室的。谷歌正在全面扩展其印度业务。但这一进程既费时又费钱。谷歌拒绝量化其在印度的投资。“这是个很大的数字。”阿南丹这样说道。他是谷歌负责该地区业务的一把手。“这是我们将在未来10到15年持续进行的一项投资,其目的是让更多的人上网。”他补充说,真正赚得利润是“一项长期目标”。谷歌也不愿透露其在印度的业务规模,但分析师认为其年收入为13亿美元,仅占该公司2018年1360亿美元营收的很小一部分。

尽管如此,谷歌在印度工作所产生的影响绝不限于这一个国家,它还扩散到非常遥远的地方,其中包括远在7000多英里之外,坐落于加州山景城的谷歌总部。印度正在越来越多地成为谷歌最终进军其他数十个新兴市场时遵循的蓝图。在这些新兴市场,贫困、文盲和昂贵但缓慢的服务让大多数人无法上网。其中包括一些世界上增长最快的经济体,比如拥有2.6亿人口的印度尼西亚,以及人口有望在2050年超过美国的尼日利亚。谷歌“下一个十亿用户”团队的产品管理总监乔什·伍德沃德表示:“我们正在从零开始构思产品。”该公司于2015年创立了这支专注于新市场的团队。“倘若你要为孟买而不是山景城打造一款产品,你会打造什么?”阐释该部门的研发方式时,伍德沃德这样问道。他们预计,这些产品将经历“几代人”的演变。

谷歌的现任高管们很可能等不到这个问题最终被回答的那一天。他们也知道,那些设法把互联网服务带给更多人的公司要做的,是一件天大的好事——当然也会借此大赚一笔。“最大的问题是,如何才能让他们上网?”谷歌的阿南丹问道。“在这方面,印度肯定会为我们提供很多宝贵的经验教训。”

For Western companies vying to increase their slice of global markets, India’s steep digital trajectory has proved a strong draw. Perhaps no company embodies the huge hurdles of ramping up in India, and the huge payoff it might bring, as much as Google. The company’s growth depends on finding ever more users, as advertising drives more than 80% of its profits. Given that Google and other Western giants essentially are shut out of China, no other country offers a bigger opportunity to add hundreds of millions of consumers than India. “This is one of the largest populations in the world, with an income base that is a lot lower than elsewhere, so it is challenging,” says Brent Thill, an analyst in San Francisco with investment bank Jefferies. Still, he says, with more than $100 billion in cash, Google can spend years creating its India business without fretting over the cost. “They have an incredible asset base to use to go after that population,” Thill says.

That much was plain when I crisscrossed the country late last year, from remote villages to the vast urban sprawl of Mumbai and New Delhi, to see how Google was building its infrastructure in India, as well as how the country has become a crucial testing lab for the company. The process of scaling up Google’s India business is in full swing. But it will be both long and costly. Google declines to quantify its investment in India. “It is a lot,” says Anandan, the region’s top executive. “It is an investment we are going to make for the next 10 to 15 years, to really get people online,” he says, adding that true profitability “is long term.” Google also won’t describe the size of its business in India, but analysts peg annual revenue at $1.3 billion, a paltry portion of the company’s $136 billion in 2018 revenues.

The impact of Google’s work in India, nonetheless, is being felt not only in India but also far beyond, including more than 7,000 miles away, at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Increasingly, India is becoming the blueprint for Google’s eventual push into dozens of other emerging markets, where poverty, illiteracy, and costly but slow service have kept most people off the Internet. These include some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, like Indonesia, with 260 million people, and Nigeria, whose population is on track to overtake that of the U.S. by 2050. “We are thinking of products from scratch,” says Josh Woodward, director of product management for Google’s “next billion users” team, which the company formed in 2015 to focus on new markets. “If you were to build a product for Mumbai and not Mountain View, what would you build?” asks Woodward, illustrating the unit’s approach, which it expects to evolve over “generations.”

Google’s executives likely will not be around to see how that question is answered. They also know there is genuine good to be done—and a ton of money to be made—by the companies that figure out how to bring Internet service to the vast numbers who still don’t have it. “The big question is, What does it take to get them connected?” asks Google’s Anandan. “India absolutely will tell us a lot about what it really takes.”

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