Fortune

GOOGLE’S HOPES AND DREAMS IN INDIA

THE SILICON VALLEY GIANT OPTS FOR PATIENCE OVER PROFITS IN THIS MASSIVE BUT CHALLENGING MARKET. WHAT IT LEARNS THERE MAY BE EVEN MORE IMPORTANT FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.
YouTube star Nisha Madhulika on the set of her popular cooking show.

IT IS ALREADY DARK in the New Delhi suburb of Noida on a night in December when I arrive at the home of one of the biggest YouTube stars in all of India. Yet the person who greets me at the door defies every stereotype the word YouTuber evokes. Nisha Madhulika is a 60-year-old grandmother dressed in a long robe and sandals, with her hair tied in a ponytail. After settling me in an armchair in the living room, she plies me with home-baked cookies. “You must try them,” she says, in a voice barely above a whisper, using her son to translate from Hindi.

Given the transformation unfolding in India, it seems fitting that Madhulika, with 6.5 million subscribers to her YouTube cooking channel and 200,000 more signing on each month, has hit it big late in life and with little forewarning. That, in a nutshell, could just as well describe India’s belated embrace of all things digital. Hundreds of millions of Indians have logged on to the Internet for the first time in the past two years. The surge is owing to aggressive government policies aimed at connecting Indians online and plummeting prices for data and smartphones. About 390 million Indians are now active Internet users, almost a third of the population and twice as many as were connected in 2016, according to industry estimates. For context, that’s more Indian Internet users than all the people who live in the United States.

A generation ago, the U.S., Europe, and then China added similarly huge numbers of people to the Internet. Yet the process in those areas was steady and gradual, moving from dial-up modems through clunky Wi-Fi to mobile tech. Contrast that with India, where hundreds of millions of people have skipped the early-stage Internet altogether; many have never even touched a computer. Instead, they have started online by downloading apps and watching mobile-phone videos at a furious rate. Since 2017, Indians have begun downloading more apps than Americans do. And last year, India became the biggest consumer of mobile data on Android phones. “We have not seen this kind of user behavior anywhere else in the world,” says Rajan Anandan, vice president for India

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