If you’re reading this, it’s highly probable you not only own a smartphone, but regularly use it to access the Internet.
But what about the vast majority of Earth’s population that not only don’t have access to a smartphone, but any form of regular Web access? This is where Innoz comes into play, as it looks to plug the massive gap between access to information and, well, the desire for access to information.
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At a packed auditorium at Wired 2013, Innoz co-founder Deepak Ravindran gave his keynote via Skype hooked up to a big screen, having been denied a visa to enter the UK. But that didn’t stop Deepak from explaining how his company has been making huge waves with its SMSGyan service.
The offline Google
“I truly believe that there is an Internet offline,” says co-founder Deepak Ravindran. And he’s not talking about caches for offline access either. “The way that I’m trying to achieve this is through a simple platform which is what we call SMS.”
In terms of how it all works, well, it’s not thanks to a bunch of people bashing away at keyboards in a basement somewhere. It’s all automated artificial intelligence, and it’s instantaneous too. There’s a single monthly plan through which users can access the Internet – or, more accurately, a lightweight version of the Internet – for 30 rupees a month. That’s less than one US dollar.
“People send an SMS, with the particular thing that they want to know, and our system automatically finds the answer and responds,” explains Deepak. “Compared to Google, the biggest advantage for mobile users with SMS is that we provide the direct answers for people which saves them not only money, but also time.”
This could be anything from currency conversions and sports scores, to actors’ ages and the weather.
While Google did once offer an SMS Search service, this was closed down earlier this year (plus, it wasn’t quite the same thing anyway), but Google does still have a number of SMS-based applications giving access to Calendar, Gmail and more via text message.
At any rate, Innoz is going the extra nine yards as it looks to bring all three billion “dumb-phone”-owners into the digital information age.
In the beginning
The seed of the idea started way back in 2008, when Deepak and a group of friends were doing computer science engineering in a small town college in India.
Like all great entrepreneurs, Deepak dropped out of college to pursue his goals with Innoz full-time and, in the five or so years since, not only has his eureka moment changed Deepak’s life, but also millions of people using it in India and around the world.
During the last cricket world cup, hosted in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Innoz partnered with Airtel to let fans access scores and updates via SMS. “This was the growth hacking we did,” says Deepak. “What we provided was a platform through which users could not only check the cricket scores, but also wickets, commentary and fixtures too. All by simply sending an SMS.”
During the event, 100 million queries were made by the cricket-loving public and gave Innoz and its SMSGyan service a massive boost.
“Our traffic in the next three months jumped, and we suddenly realized, this is it,” says Deepak. “Within two years, our service scaled massively – we reached a billion SMS enquires by the end of 2012. We became the largest offline search engine – this was officially recognized by the Limca Book of Records, which is the Indian equivalent of the Guinness Book of Records,” he continues.
The company has received plaudits across the board, and was named as one of Forbes India’s 5 startups to watch. But it’s not just focusing on India. Innoz operates in seven countries around the world, working with twenty network operators, and has served in excess of 1.3 billion queries. “More than 120 million users have tried the service around the world so far,” adds Deepak. “We’re focusing on developing nations – we want to be the Google for the developing world.”
It’s an oft-cited stat, but there are more cellphones than sanitary toilets in India, and it helps hit home the potential of mobile phones in the country and elsewhere in developing nations. Though granted, it also may hint at the need for more sanitary toilets.
“Of the four billion phones around the world, hardly one billion of these are smartphones, whereas more than 3 billion of these are ‘dumb phones’,” says Deepak. “Why ‘dumb’? Because they have no Internet.”
The future’s ‘smart’
Looking to the future, smartphone numbers will only rise as they become more accessible and affordable, which is why Innoz is looking beyond the feature phone market already.
“This is brilliant,” says Deepak. “Thanks to Android, and Google, there is a platform that can power millions or billions of devices, and this actually inspired us. This helped us focus more on the Android part of the world, so we created an SMS app store around 13 months back. And the goal was pretty simple – to connect the unconnected one app at a time.”
Many Internet companies are on board with Innoz’s technology as it looks to bring their respective services to the unconnected masses – this includes Wikipedia, Twitter, Foursquare, Microsoft Bing and Google. Indeed, although its SMS app platform is open to any developer, it also has ‘verified apps’, which surface the ones that are actually approved by the Internet’s big guns.
Users can update their Facebooks status, and receive Twitter updates directly through SMS. Other tie-ups have seen location-based services come to fruition, including apps that store your longitude and latitude details to help identify nearby restaurants, points-of-interest and more. All by sending an SMS.
Through its 55444.in portal, Innoz targets developers to build SMS-based applications for just about anything, and there is more than 10,000 of such apps to date. The developer ecosystem is fostered through hackathons, where it showcases the efforts of developers from around the world.
The ramifications of this kind of tech is huge. For example, one app called Nerd English requires the user to enter the word in their local language, and convert it to English by sending an SMS. “This can have a huge impact in terms of shaking up the end learning system in India,” says Deepak.
Innoz has also created its own ‘Brownie’ operating system – for dumb phones. “We don’t want to be another Internet company competing with Android, or any other OS,” says Deepak. “We just want to provide a solution for all of us to bring the Internet to the people that don’t have it.”
The project is called ‘Think Brownie’, and it’s basically an OS that can be installed on phones, though perhaps more interestingly from a future perspective is a standalone Brownie Android app that serves as a lightweight text-focused browser for search.
You can search for direction, and the Maps app will serve up the basic route you need to take.
There’s also Twitter, Facebook, news, ebooks translator and many more. The app actually functions in data-mode (for those with mobile Web access (WiFi or 3G), and SMS mode for everyone else.
The SMS mode is only available in the (developing) countries where Innoz has network partnerships in place though, and you will receive a message telling you so if you try to access this mode from elsewhere.
“The inspiration for this came from the Gmail HTML version,” explains Deepak. “There has to be a text mode for the Internet browsing experience, as this not only saves us a lot of time in browsing, but also helps those who don’t actually have the Internet right now.”
So Innoz is catering for the now, while also future-proofing its business to cater not only for more technologically advanced markets, but for a time when smartphones are the norm around the world, even though Internet might still not be prevalent.
Interestingly, Deepak is also looking to take the service into more Western markets, and is considering deals at the moment. “I’m actually talking to a UK company, to partner and launch this service,” he says. “The Brownie app gives you a feel for what the service is all about too.”
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