Google Assistant is Now Only a Phone Call Away in India
Asking Google Assistant questions in India doesn’t require internet access anymore. Google announced a partnership with Vodaphone to create a free, dedicated phone line to connect with the voice assistant from any phone.
Internet-Free Voice Assistant
According to Google, there are hundreds of millions of people in India with feature phones and 2G smartphones that have little or no internet access. That would normally mean no access to Google Assistant, but not anymore. People in India who dial 000 0800 9191000 will get connected to the voice assistant as though they had opened up the app on their phone, and can ask any of the same questions.
The voice assistant hotline responds to English or Hindi and can be used to find out the weather, traffic, news, and sports scores in a way identical to those who own a Google smart speaker, albeit without the personalization of the information. While the service is limited to Vodafone-Idea customers at the moment, the plan is to incorporate other telephone companies soon.
From sharing sports and weather updates to helping with college homework, Phone Line is making information accessible for thousands of Indians in Kanpur and Lucknow.
— Google India (@GoogleIndia) September 19, 2019
Reaching the Next Billion Internet Users
Google has a stated strategy of reaching the “next billion users” by bringing the internet to people that have previously not had access to it. Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlined the next billion user strategy in a 2015 blog post saying, “We’d like to help get these next billion Indians online—so they can access the entire web, and all of its information and opportunity.”
The company first worked with partners to introduce less expensive smartphones using the Android OS. The idea was to simply make devices with internet access more affordable. Then, in late 2017, Google Assistant was first introduced on feature phones. Feature phones in India can be as inexpensive as US$8 and most can be acquired for less than US$30. This strategy has quickly expanded Google Assistant’s user reach in India as Voicebot reported in a July exclusive.
However, there are still hundreds of millions of Indians that do not have and cannot afford feature phones. Many of these people do have access to traditional telephones and enabling a call to a number that is answered by Google Assistant is another creative way to make the service accessible even to people without internet access.
Multilingual Voice Assistant Competition
Along with the new phone line, Google announced improved support for several Indic languages. Google has been building up support for many languages spoken in India over the last couple of years, including adding Hindi support to Google Assistant late last year and expanding into additional languages in February. Along with Hindi users can ask Google Assistant to speak in Marathi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, and Malayalam. Now, it has simplified the process of switching between languages on Google Assistant to a voice command.
“For many Indians, searching by voice rather than text is their first choice,” Google’s vice president for the Next Billion Users Initiative and Payment Caesar Sengupta said in a blog post. “Hindi is now the second-most used Assistant language globally after English. And from today, you can simply say, “Hey Google, talk to me in Hindi” (or the Indian language of your choice) to start using the Assistant, without needing to dig around in settings.”
Notably, Google announced its series of updates to Google Assistant in India only a day after Amazon announced that the Alexa voice assistant can now converse in Hindi and Hindi/English hybrid language Hinglish. Although Google has been ahead of Amazon in terms of supporting Hindi, Alexa-powered smart speakers are more widely used in India.
Nearly two-thirds of smart speakers in the country are Alexa-powered according to a report in March from IDC. But, as the Google Assistant phone line feature suggests, the dominance of a voice assistant on the sub-continent may be less dependant on hardware like smart speakers, and more about which option can best serve the needs of people in India as part of a larger tech ecosystem. On that larger scale, who’s winning the competition may be a lot harder to discern but it is clear that Google’s telecom strategy for distributing Google Assistant offers it far larger reach among Indians than Alexa.