Google says howzit with its new offices

2015-08-23 18:07
Google makes its SA presence felt in its reception area.

Google makes its SA presence felt in its reception area.

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Google’s new offices in Bryanston, Joburg, are well, so Google. But I don’t see that at first. The Silicon Valley start-up that has taken over the world has a South African presence in Jozi in an anodyne office park. 

I am disappointed – until I get into the interior space. 

The company that prides itself on making congenial offices in which to work does not disappoint. There is a games room covered in indoor lawn, a staff canteen serving a range of healthy foods, and boardrooms named after South African colloquialisms. A real barbershop stool fills out a space made to look like an old-style male hairdresser. 

A Howzit sign made of wire greets you in the reception area and beautiful beaded art with brilliant Joburg graffiti makes this space speak of Silicon Valley meeting one of Africa’s most vibrant cities. Standing desks, busy geeks and a totally wired environment complete the picture. 

I’m here to meet Matt Brittin, the president of Google’s operations for Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and I start by asking if the map’s changed. 

I once attended another Google executive’s presentation. He started by showing a global live search of where in the world people were using the search engine. At the time, Africa was a black hole. 

“People are coming online at a very rapid rate. We are in a world with between 2.5 billion and 3 billion people connected. By 2020, there will be 5 billion connected,” says Brittin. 

He adds that it’s all being driven by cellphones. This week, Google launched Android 1, a smartphone that should retail in Africa for about $85 (R1 100). The version Brittin shows me is beautiful – as slick as my Apple 6 and as fast as his own phone. 

It is so much cheaper, I almost want to cry. 

Google supported the development of the phone as a way of getting its tools into the hands of people throughout Africa who are adopting mobile at a fantastic pace. “The Android 1 is an effort to make mobile more affordable by offering the highest-possible quality at the lowest-possible price.” 

In South Africa, Google does three key things. It gets small businesses on to the web by training entrepreneurs who increasingly reach their audiences through their own websites or social media. 

“The digital economy and the real economy are the same place. Saying there’s a digital economy is like saying there’s an electricity economy. Every business today is a digital business because an increasingly large proportion of consumers have the internet – so it’s like every business is a click away,” says Brittin. 

“When you think about internet companies, you may think of Facebook, Google, Twitter. The real internet companies are those that are selling things on the internet.” Google’s work with local companies saw the internet grow by 6% in 2012. 

Its second programme could change the face of a still largely pale-male advertising industry. Digify is a three-month digital boot camp to train young black people for digital agency jobs. Each student is given a paid internship and the success rate has been impressive. 

If mining and the old economy in South Africa are in decline, then the Digify graduates are the face of the new one. 

Brittin visited Soweto, where he met a group of young people to understand how they used data. His key observation: the proportion of income we spend on data is much higher than in other parts of the world and the continent. The cost has to be so low that you barely notice it, he says; it should also be so fast that you can do everything on it quickly – but we’re not there yet. 

“We need it to be cheaper, with better-quality services. We want to see more local services,” he says. 

The third thing Google does is market South Africa. It has digitised the marvellous archive of Nelson Mandela and put Robben Island on Street View. In the days following this, most visits were from people outside South Africa.

The company works with SA Tourism to build content about Mzansi that can serve as click bait for potential visitors. Travel and tourism work brilliantly online. They are virtual products. There’s a huge opportunity for export-led growth. 

“We’ve been working in Greece through the downturn and really helped [the tourism] sector grow despite the horrible conditions they are facing,” says Brittin. 

In Uganda, the company has gone for a different approach and laid 700km of cable while partnering with 60% of local telecommunication and other companies to get it up to the speed required for that country’s burgeoning economy. This has created a market for Google’s services, but similar initiatives are not yet on the cards for South Africa, with its competitive industry hamstrung by the availability of spectrum. 

Google is no friend of the publishing industry, because the search engine has eaten us for breakfast. 

Journalism is among the forms of digital content that Google has built into a $368 billion empire, according to Forbes’ valuation of the company. 

Europe is at loggerheads with Google over antitrust issues, the fate of its venerable publishing institutions and privacy and data safety. These debates have not yet reached Africa, where the company can more easily live up to its odd motto: Don’t be evil. 

“There have been shifts in how people are finding information,” says Brittin. 

And it’s no longer even by search. Seven out of eight minutes on your phone are likely to be spent in an app. 

Brittin’s view of relationships with publishers is less harsh than the ones I often read about. Google views itself as an industry partner to build audiences, create new revenues through Google Ads (which are much cheaper than traditional advertising and have created a bloodbath in traditional media companies) and offer greater choice. Its analytics (live measurements of what audiences read and for how long they do so) are key. 

In Europe, publishers have negotiated better revenue-sharing models so that the cost of journalism can be shared – no doubt that is also a debate that will reach our continent in time. 

“We’ve partnered with publishers and want there to be great investigative journalism online,” says Brittin. 

As connected audiences grow in sub-Saharan Africa, Google will face the same sets of checks and balances it is being forced to undertake in the northern hemisphere. 

“It’s no secret that Europeans have legitimate concerns about the changes the web is bringing to their worlds. ‘What information is out there about me? Is my data secure? How is my data being used commercially? Why am I losing revenue and readership?’ These are really good questions,” Brittin agrees. 

In Europe, the “right to be forgotten” by search engines has been enshrined in law. This is a new-generation right that a member of the public can use to force search engines to remove from their results any information about them that they deem harmful. 

The only defence to not doing so is the public-interest one. From the number of requests we receive at City Press from people who want to be forgotten, South Africa is catching up quickly to the risks of the internet. 

“[There are real] concerns about censorship and free expression. We believe news media is much better qualified to make decisions about what they do and don’t publish,” says Britten. 

This week’s dump of data from cheating website Ashley Madison will only accelerate the debate about data safety here. 

In his trip across Kenya and South Africa this week, the Google boss has come away with this impression: “In Africa, people look to the future, and they want to protect the future from the past,” he says.

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