Google targets ‘next billion’ with basic mobile web service Free Zone

09/11/2012

Google has launched ‘Free Zone’, a new mobile web service aimed at giving millions of people in the developing world to access the Internet (and Google's ads) via basic mobile phones without data charges.

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The service will intitially roll-out in the Philipines, inpartnership with Globe Telecom.

Free Zone gives users instant access to Google Search, Gmail, and Google+ on feature phones and smartphones at no cost via libre.ph. Users need a Google account to sign up.

The service is aimed at first-time mobile Internet users who often find basic services like e-mail, mobile web browsing and social applications expensive. The service limits their subscription to mobile surfing plans and bundles.

"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," AbdelKarim Mardini, product manager for Google, told Reuters.

With the new mobile Internet promo, Globe is initially offering access to around 30 million Globe Prepaid and TM subscribers nationwide until March 31, 2013.

The versions of Google Search, Gmail and Google+ on Free Zone are designed to work well with feature phones that lack the tech of a smartphone.

Google built the software and Globe became the first operator to make it work on its network.

This means that the Philippines the first place in the world to use this new product. (View one of the first ads for the product below).

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“The open Web is only as open as it is affordable. We wanted to make search available to as many people as possible. But a free search result isn’t much good if you can’t then go to the Web site,” said AbdelKarim Mardini, Product Manager at Google.

“So we decided to make all those Web sites available as part of the package as well. We’re hoping Free Zone will make the mobile Internet feel like a necessity that everyone can use rather than a luxury,” he added.

Users can search the Web and access the first page of websites from the results without getting charged. If they click further, users are directed to a page where they can subscribe to a data plan to continue. But for as long as they stay within the Free Zone, charging will not take place.

Even without a data plan, users can still send and receive text emails while on the go via Gmail. Uploading and downloading attachments carry corresponding data charges.

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 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.

Google says it plans to roll out the service in other countries soon.

Visit the Free Zone home page here

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