Google SMS to Boost Mobile Information Delivery in Africa

Google introduces Google SMS, a suite of mobile search, tips and e-commerce applications targeted for African mobile phone users. The move could improve information access online in Africa and help Google extend its search engine and Web services dominance in the nascent field of mobile and wireless computing.

Google June 29 rolled out new mobile applications geared to let users in Uganda, Africa access health, news, weather and other information from mobile phones via Short Message Service.

Google already offers SMS services for North America, and has even added SMS to its Gmail chat tool, though it is currently down. This new flavor of Google SMS is tailored for Africa, where phones largely only feature voice and SMS functionality.

Google SMS includes Google SMS Tips, an SMS-based query-and-answer service that provides a "Web search-like" experience for mobile phone users. This is crucial for users using cheap cell phones that lack fully dedicated Web browsers.

Users type in 6001 as a text query to access SMS Tips. Google's algorithms restructure the query to identify keywords, search a database to identify relevant answers and return the most relevant answer.

SMS Tips cover information on health care, health clinics, weather forecasts and critical agricultural information. Google SMS Search provides news, sports scores and word definitions. Users must text 6006 to retrieve results.

The suite also includes Google Trader, an e-commerce marketplace application that helps sellers reach buyers with offers of material goods and jobs, among other things. Users must text 6007 to access Trader to post or view advertisements for products and services.

Text queries must not exceed 160 characters, the usual constraint for SMS. Google also warned that the product is far from polished, requiring improvements in search quality and additions to its health and farming content.

Joe Mucheru, head of Google Sub-Saharan Africa, and Fiona Lee, Google's Africa project manager, explained the reason for the suite in a blog post, noting:

"It's important to reach users wherever they are, with the information they need, in areas with the greatest information poverty. In many places around the world, people look to their phones, rather than their computers, to find information they need in their daily lives. This is especially true in Africa, which has the world's highest mobile growth rate and where mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one."

Indeed, due to financial considerations, mobile phones remain the main gateway Africans use to access the Web.

Accordingly, Google is providing SMS tailored for Africa to tap the incredibly green field of mobile computing, another fork in the search engine giant's long, winding road to organize the world's information on the Internet.

Google is already the leader in search on the desktop and would love to duplicate that success on the so-called third screen, where it is vying for supremacy with Yahoo, Microsoft and other Web services providers.

ReadWriteWeb's Frederic Lardinois has more information on Google's partners for Google SMS here, or see more coverage on TechMeme here.