Google Free Zone Access Targets Mobile Phone Users in Emerging Markets

Google is launching the service in the Philippines to entice users of basic mobile phones to use its online products, even if they don't have data plans.  

Though Google's Android mobile operating system is now found on three of every four smartphones shipped around the world, the company is still pushing to drive the popularity of Android—especially in emerging markets.

That's what Google hopes to do, starting in the Philippines with a new Free Zone service it is rolling out to give users of basic mobile phones the ability to access Google online services and online advertisements on their Internet-enabled phones—even if they aren't subscribing to a data plan. Free Zone was launched through a Philippines mobile carrier, Globe Telecom, on Nov. 8, according to a story by Reuters.

"The service allows phones with an Internet connection but limited functionality to access basic Google products like search, email and its social networking service Google+ for free," according to Reuters. "Users could access Websites that show up in Google's search results for free, but any Website outside those results would prompt an invitation to subscribe to the mobile operator's data plan."

The free services will apparently be a sort of "teaser" that lets users experience new functions they can have with their phones and with the huge amount of information that is potentially available to them when they are away from their traditional computers. If they like having that access, Google—and the phone carriers that would join the program—hope those customers will find ways to continue to access it beyond their free services by paying for lucrative data plans.

"It's aimed at the next billion users of the Internet, many of whom will be in emerging markets and encounter the Internet first on a mobile phone, without ever owning a PC," said AbdelKarim Mardini, product manager for Google, according to the Reuters story.

Google's business model calls for the company to make most of its money through its sales of online advertisements on its search pages. So more eyes seeing more ads on more pages being accessed through new mobile phone customers is a big win for Google, and for cellular phone carriers who want users to buy more data access on those phones.

Google will launch the Free Zone service in additional developing nations in the future, according to Reuters.

"While developing countries like the Philippines have been enthusiastic early adopters of cellphones, there are still millions who either use phones too basic to be used for Internet services, or who are reluctant to shell out for more expensive services,"' the story reported. "The GfK Group, a research company which measures consumer habits, reported in September that while smartphone sales are growing rapidly in Southeast Asia, the more basic feature phones still outnumber their more expensive counterparts."

Interestingly, the Free Zone move comes just after a research study was released Nov. 1 by IDC that showed that Android was the operating system of choice on 75 percent of the 181.1 million smartphones that shipped around the world in the third quarter. That number is five times the 14.9 percent market share of Apple's iOS for the same period.

The IDC report shows remarkable progress for the four-year-old Android OS against competition that includes the widely popular Apple iOS, a drastically smaller BlackBerry market, Microsoft's multiple Windows Phone efforts and the rest of a straggling field.

Android was on 136 million smartphones shipped in the quarter, compared with 26.9 million smartphones shipped by Apple, according to the report. For Android, that was a 91.5 percent year-over-year jump from the 71 million Android smartphones shipped in the same quarter one year ago. Apple's iOS was the only other mobile operating system to have a double-digit market share for the quarter. Research In Motion's BlackBerry OS shipped on 7.7 million smartphones in the quarter, while Symbian shipped on 4.1 million units, according to IDC. Windows Phone 7 or Windows Mobile shipped on 3.6 million devices, while Linux shipped on 2.8 million units.

Android use has been going through the roof worldwide. In fact, Android hit 500 million device activations overall in mid-September, just as Apple's latest iPhone 5 was about to launch.

The U.S. market for feature-rich smartphones is still expanding at a rapid clip, with two-thirds of new mobile phone buyers opting for devices that can do far more than their old-style flip phones, according to a study from Nielsen released in July. Google's Android operating system is the beneficiary of this surge, although the iPhone still holds sway.

Under the Free Zone program available to basic mobile phone users in the Philippines, users will only have access to the free services in their local areas. It will not work with roaming, according to the program. Free Zone will allow users to access Google+, Gmail, and Google Search on their mobile phone without incurring data charges on most Internet-enabled mobile phones. Though the service is optimized for basic feature phones, it can also be used on smartphones. It will not work on computers or tablet devices.

Users gain access to the service by signing into their free Google accounts through the phone's default browser. The service won't work with third-party browsers, according to Google.

Access to content and Web pages outside of Google+ or Gmail or if users want to view an email attachment won't be possible unless the user pays for a data plan, according to the service. That means that users who want to view a link found in a Google search will also have to pay for access to view that page. While searches are free, getting access to the target information will require payments for that additional data access.