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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。

对谷歌来说,这种颠覆是一座潜在的金矿。Reliance Jio的网络和莫迪总理的政策携手撬开了一个此前遥不可及,或者规模太小而不值得投资的市场。2017年,在Reliance Jio网络启动后不久,谷歌开发了其首款数字支付应用Tez,从而抓住了数百万印度人突然开始进行数字支付这一机会。去年,它将这款应用更名为“谷歌支付”(Google Pay)。根据该公司的数据,谷歌支付目前在包括美国在内的29个国家拥有约4000万月活跃用户,2018年的交易额约为600亿美元。

让谷歌感到意外的是,它为适应印度的特殊挑战(比如不稳定的互联网连接、只会说本地语言的新用户,以及高文盲率)而设计或调整的应用,竟然拥有广阔的全球市场。在这方面,谷歌支付并不是唯一的例子。另一个例子是 2005 年在美国推出的“谷歌地图”(Google Maps)。在印度,这款应用面临巨大的局限性。数千条印度道路没有正式名称,即使有,当地人也不知道。常驻新加坡的谷歌“下一个十亿用户”团队的负责人凯撒·森古普塔表示:“毫不夸张地说,我们必须自己绘制地图。”他说,谷歌决定用人们说话的方式来绘制印度地图。现在,如果你在新德里走一圈,谷歌地图可能会这样给你指路:“在第一个柱子左转,在医院右转,然后在学校右转。”(这种创新也被移植到了发达国家。谷歌地图会特意提到地标性建筑,比如街角的药店。)印度司机也知道,方向取决于你乘坐哪种交通工具。因此,谷歌工程师专门为该国的机动三轮车司机调整了地图服务,为他们提供不适用于汽车的路线指引。

为了让数百万印度人在经常不稳定的互联网连接上使用谷歌地图,工程师调整了这款应用,允许用户下载路线指引,并离线导航。现在,你可以在世界上其他任何地方离线使用谷歌地图。(2015年,谷歌还在印度推出了YouTube的首款离线版本,这一功能现在已扩展到80个国家。)“人们以前使用的是纸质地图。”森古普塔说。“今天,如果你在印度四处走走,你会看到每个人都在使用谷歌地图,因为它可以离线使用。”

谷歌地图在印度广受欢迎还有另一个原因:印度大约有10种方言,这款应用则使用其中的10种指引方向。谷歌搜索和其他应用也是如此。这就要求硅谷的谷歌工程师从零开始设计键盘,因为好几种印度语言此前从未在任何电脑或手机上输入过。“这些语言根本就没有数据库。”谷歌语音技术部门的达恩·范·埃施在加州表示。谷歌派遣员工前往印度的偏远地区,录制了12万个当地语言短语,然后将这些记录输入算法,利用机器学习技术将语音转换成文本。这一功能在印度引起轰动,随后相继在其他国家推出。范·埃施表示,许多人表现得非常激动——多年来,他们一直觉得互联网是供别人使用的,与自己无关。“我在2017年去了一趟印度,展示了一款适用于曼尼普里语的键盘。”他说。曼尼普里语是印度东北部的主要语言。“人们后来拥抱我,感慨万千地说道:‘我的语言终于在网上了。’”

此外,谷歌还为一些源自于竞争对手的问题设计了解决方案。它发布的应用Files就是一个例子。这款应用允许用户清除未读或重复的电子邮件和消息。Files于2017年在印度推出,目前在全球拥有约3000万用户。但Files的创建初衷是为了解决印度特有的一个头痛问题:每天出现在WhatsApp上的数百万条早安问候信息。这款隶属于Facebook的即时通讯应用,在印度拥有约2亿活跃用户。每天黎明时分,无数印度人都会给所有联系人发送WhatsApp消息:“早上好!”并配以鲜花和励志语录。那些试图搞清楚为什么印度的智能手机总是死机的谷歌科学家最终发现,这个问题与铺天盖地的早安问候信息有关。莫迪总理显然没有意识到人们的恼怒,他在2017年向议员们抱怨说,几乎没有人回应他每天早上的问候。相反,谷歌工程师做出了更为果断的回应,他们设计了Files应用。现在,人们只需要轻轻一点就可以删除这些信息。对不起,总理先生。

FOR GOOGLE, THE DISRUPTION is a potential gold mine. Together, Reliance Jio’s network and Prime Minister Modi’s policies have cracked open markets that until now have been out of reach, or too small to be worth the investment. In 2017, shortly after Jio’s launch, Google created its first­ever digital payments app, Tez, seizing on the millions of Indians who were suddenly making digital payments. Last year it renamed the app Google Pay, and it now has about 40 million monthly active users in 29 countries, including the U.S., with about $60 billion in transactions in 2018, according to Google.

That is not the only instance in which Google unexpectedly has found a global market for apps it designed or tweaked specifically for India’s particular challenges: Patchy Internet connections, new users who speak only indigenous languages, and a high rate of illiteracy. Another is Google Maps, which launched in the U.S. in 2005. Its limitations in India were profound. Thousands of Indian roads have no official street names, and if they do have names, locals do not know them. “We literally had to draw up the maps ourselves,” says Caesar Sengupta, who is based in Singapore and runs Google’s “next billion users” team. Sengupta says Google decided to map India in the way people speak. Now, if you walk around New Delhi, Google Maps might give you directions like “Turn left at the first pillar, right at the hospital, then right again at the school.” (That innovation, too, has been ported to the developed world, where Google Maps makes references to landmarks, like the corner drugstore.) Indian drivers also know that directions depend on which kind of vehicle you are in. So Google engineers tweaked Maps for the country’s three-wheeler scooter taxis known as auto-rickshaws, offering them routes that would not work for cars.

To get millions of Indians using Google Maps on their often erratic Internet connections, engineers tweaked the app to allow users to download directions and follow them off-line. Now you can use Maps off-line anywhere in the world. (Google also offered the first off-line version of YouTube in India, in 2015, an option now available in 80 countries.) “There was a time when people had paper maps,” Sengupta says. “Today you walk around India and see everyone using Google Maps because they work off-line.”

There is another reason for the popularity of Google Maps in India: It gives directions in 10 of India’s 50 or so local languages. So, too, do Google Search and other apps. That required Google engineers in Silicon Valley to design keyboards from scratch, since several Indian languages had never before been typed on any computer or phone. “There were no databases at all for these languages,” says Daan van Esch of Google’s speech technology unit in California. Google dispatched its staff to remote corners of India to record 120,000 phrases in local languages and then feed the recordings into algorithms, using machine-learning technology to turn voice into text. The feature caused a sensation in India and has since launched in other countries. Van Esch says many people’s responses are deeply emotional, after years of feeling that the Internet was something for others but not for them. “I went to India in 2017 and demonstrated a keyboard in Manipuri,” the dominant language in northeast India, he says. “People hugged me afterward and said, ‘At last, my language is online.’ ”

Google also has designed solutions to problems that originate from competitors. One example is Google’s Files app, which allows users to clean out unread or repetitive emails and messages. Launched in 2017 in India, Files now has about 30 million users globally. But Files originally was created to tackle a uniquely Indian headache: the millions of good-morning messages sent daily on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook and has about 200 million active users in India. Countless thousands of Indians send WhatsApp messages to all their contacts at dawn every day, reading “Good morning!” and embellished with flowers and inspirational phrases. Google scientists trying to understand why smartphones kept freezing in India finally traced the problem to the good-morning blitz. Apparently unaware of people’s irritation, Prime Minister Modi complained to lawmakers in 2017 that almost none of them responded to his daily good-morning greetings. Instead, a more decisive response came from Google engineers, who designed the Files app. Now people can delete the messages with one swipe. Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister.

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