August 03, 2020
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His Search Umbrella | By Prasanto K. Roy

The Google mothership enters into a bit of a storm. It’s a tough course from here. How shall the calm captain fare?

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His Search Umbrella | By Prasanto K. Roy
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
His Search Umbrella | By Prasanto K. Roy

As India turns 71 next week, Outlook zeroed in on 21 individuals who have made a lasting impression on this country – for both good and bad – so far in the 21 st century. And we got 21 equally important personalities to write on the 21 individuals we chose.

In this column, Prasanto K. Roy writes on Sundar Pichai.


It’s a rough patch for Sundar Pichai, steering Google through its ‘Microsoft moment’ as many are calling the crisis facing the global tech giant now. Google was hit with a record $5 billion fine by the EU in July for breaking antitrust laws. The European Commission says Google abuses its Android market dominance by forcing phone-makers to pre-install ‘Search’ and Chrome along  with Android, if they want a Play Store licence; that it pays manufacturers and mobile operators to install only Google Search on their phones and that it prevents them from using alternative versions or ‘forks’ of Android. Through history, regulators have gunned for the most powerful companies: IBM, AT&T, Microsoft. Now it’s Google’s turn, and Pichai Sundararajan is at the helm.

No, the fine won’t break Google, though it will take away three-fourth of its second-quarter earnings. The bigger question for Pichai is: What happens to Android, if Google has to comply with the EU directives? Pichai answered that in a plaintive blog post on July 18, titled Android Has Created More Choice, Not Less. He said that Android remaining a free service depends on the suite of Google products being distributed along with it: Search, Chrome, Gmail, and others, “some of which make money for us”.

The EU ruling is worrying for Google, as access to world markets gets more restricted. And EU is a big part of the world outside America, the part more accessible to Google. Remember China? In 2010, in response to hacker attacks, Google said it was no longer going to censor search in China, and was ready to pull out. Beijing retaliated. By the time Pichai became the CEO in 2015, Google had pulled out of China. Users in the mainland have had no access to Gmail or Google Search since 2014. In late 2017, I couldn’t even access Google Maps in Shanghai. But Google continues with Android in China, which makes most of the world’s smartphones.

That leaves India as the world’s biggest Google-accessible market, with over 700 million mobile users (over 1.1 billion subscriptions). Google wants to be the go-to service for the next billion internet users on earth. With China excluded, that makes India terribly important.

It helps that Pichai is from India. Born in 1972 in Madurai to a stenographer mom and engineer dad, he lived in a two-room Chennai flat before moving to IIT Kharagpur, then to Stanford for an MS and Wharton for his MBA. He’s married to Anjali Pichai, the couple has a son and a daughter. He’s very keen on cricket and football. And he’s been leveraging the India connect. He’s visited India twice, once soon after becoming CEO. Google has seen more India-centric programmes, apps and features on his watch than ever before.

The biggest thing ahead for Pichai and Google is the Next Billion Users project. NBU is headed by Caesar Sengupta who, according to former Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s book How Google Works, once partnered with Pichai on slides for board meetings. On his 2015 trip at the ‘Google for India’ event keynote in Delhi, Pichai announced big plans, including fast and free WiFi at 100 railway stations in a year, and an Internet Saathi programme for ‘half the villages in India’ in three years. A year later, Google launched a new offline-ready India-only ‘YouTube Go’ app, with low-data modes, previews, and the ability to share videos with nearby friends without using cellular data.

It helps that Pichai is from India. And he’s been leveraging the connect. Not only has he visited India twice, more India-centric ­projects have ­happened on his watch in Google.

India has done well for Google, crossing ­$1 billion in mostly-advertising revenue in 2017-18. Google has over 90 per cent share of Search in India, Android has over 90 per cent of the country’s smartphone market. YouTube has 225 million users. India has Gmail’s largest user base. And the free Wi-Fi project Pichai had announced in 2015, with RailTel, is live in 400 railway stations. In April this year, 7.5 million passengers, staff and porters had consumed over 7,100 terabytes of data at 370 railway stations in India.

But desi CEO or not, India is no walk in the park for an MNC. Despite the big thrust on foreign investment, and India’s obvious success as the world’s IT-BPM back office, strains of protectionism have been emerging—as they have in the US, the EU and elsewhere.  The new ‘swadeshi’ movement’s latest baby is data localisation. In April, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) abruptly demanded that all payment service providers store data of citizens only in India, hitting global providers such as Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and Google, which launched its Tez payment app using the Indian UPI payment system.

Google isn’t as worried about localisation for Tez as it is about its other apps. The buzz in government circles was that the RBI’s abrupt move and adamant stand was at the instance of the PMO, which is keen on localisation. So what’s next? What if Google is told to move Indians’ Gmail accounts to India? That could be a dealbreaker for Google in India.

And Google’s been there—in China, with Search. What if India guns for Search next? Within the closed doors of government ministries, China is known to be quite a role model: its home-grown domestic market and world dominance, its protectionism, even its ‘Great Firewall’. Pichai hasn’t spoken out on protectionism in India yet: Google works on policy issues quietly, through its India office and policy team. He’s been known to be outspoken—though, well aware of New Delhi’s extremely thin skin for criticism, he’s far less likely to criticise the Modi government than he does Trump. Last year, Trump’s anti-refugee policy drew a sharp response from Pichai, who said it would impact 200 Google employees, in an email to staff. Microsoft too voiced concerns on Trump’s policy. (Both tech giants’ CEOs are Indian American.)

Pichai’s blog posts and staff memos are widely read. In August 2017, he fired an employee who had written a long anti-diversity rant against Google’s policies that went viral over a weekend when Pichai was overseas on vacation. The employee wrote that women were biologically unfit for tech roles. Pichai cut short his vacation. In an email to Google employees, Pichai called the memo offensive and said that it violated the company’s Code of Conduct. “To suggest that some of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

Pichai’s response won praise, but drew flak from right-wingers, who tore into him for ‘left-wing intolerance’, even calling him totalitarian. That’s a reflection of the tightrope Google finds itself walking. It has a scarily-big influence over peoples’ lives. In India, heading to 750 million internet users in 2020, that influence will grow sharply. Hence the new projects, such as the RailWire Wi-Fi: bring the users, and revenue will follow.

But this big influence makes politicians wary, especially thin-skinned majoritarian parties heading into elections a year down, who worry less about long-term investments and policy stability than about immediate optics. With Pichai’s pet ‘Next Billion Users’ project so dependent on India, and New Delhi watching Google (and Facebook) with a hawk eye, Pichai’s and Google’s work is cut out for them in India, as it is in Europe.

To read more columns on game-changers, click here

Prasanto K. Roy is a technology policy and media professional

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