Google aims for less developed nations with Google SMS

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UpdatedGoogle is launching a new service called Google SMS today, hoping to reach a less privileged audience than the one using its web services.

Those of us with smartphones probably access Google on our mobile devices already, but usually as a supplement to usage on our desktop and laptop computers. Google SMS is part of an effort to reach people who don’t have Internet access at all, starting in Uganda. In its announcement, Google points to a report from the International Telecommunications Union showing that Africa’s mobile penetration is 28 percent — which may not seem like much, but it’s a much broader swath than the less than five percent with Internet access. And Google says that the number of people with “access to a mobile phone” (as opposed to people who own one) is even higher. So if the search giants wants to make money in Africa, phones are an obvious route.

Google SMS is basically a way for people to use SMS text messages to request information like local news, weather, sports, and more. The two most promising services are Google Trader, a marketplace built around SMS, and Google SMS Tips, where people can send in questions about practical things that matter in their daily lives (such as farming advice), and receive answers based on the keywords in their query.

Presumably, if the effort in Uganda goes well, it could be the first in a broader Google effort to reach new countries through their mobile phones. Other tech companies may move in too — for example, VentureBeat writer Dean Takahashi wrote about a conference last year where the head of IBM’s Almaden Research Center emphasized the promise of SMS in Africa. Microsoft sees the region as a potentially huge market too.

Update: I asked Google for more information about the SMS fees associated with the service, and they responded:

Google SMS Tips (Farmer’s Friend, Health Tips and ClinicFinder), Google Trader and Google SMS Search will be made free to users during an initial promotion period: first 1M SMSes sent.

Beyond the promotion period, we’re introducing a new type of pricing structure to go with Tips. In order to make Tips info as accessible as possible to as many vulnerable communities who need this info, Tips will cost half the price of a typical information SMS – only 110 Ugandan Shillings. Google Trader, which connects buyers and sellers, will cost 220 Ugandan Shillings, a price that is comparable to current offerings.

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