Compared to swimming the Palk Strait, or bicycling for seven days, (wanting to) fly a plane in our family was considered very sober," says Rajan Anandan, explaining why his mother agreed to let him go to flying school at the age of 15. Anandan passed all the required tests but was found underage to qualify for the final round. "That's why I am at Google today."
We have just sat down at the Oberoi's Threesixty coffee shop with Google's India managing director and the conversation has gravitated from Anandan's desire to be a pilot to his remarkable father. V S Kumar Anandan, a Sri Lankan Tamil, shared many Indians' fascination with setting Guinness Records. At one point, he held more records than anyone else, including swimming across the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and India, and treading water for 72 hours. He also stood on one leg for 33 hours and set a record for what Wikipedia describes mystifyingly as "ball punching for 136 hours".
"I grew up in a household where every New Year's Eve, my dad would be trying to break a world record," the 46-year-old says with a loud laugh. As so often with happy memories, this one is tinged with sadness. Anandan's father died swimming the English Channel in stormy weather 30 years ago next month. For a moment, this extroverted, ebullient Sri Lankan's face turns solemn. But, his high spirits return and he is soon laying out India's bright internet future with the fervour of an evangelist. "By 2020, India will have 500 million internet users and there's no reason why we won't have 200 million people as e-commerce customers," he says, before veering off into a story about Amazon. "What's important for India is to allow foreign direct investment in e-commerce." Setting up the infrastructure for e-commerce to happen in such numbers in India will require "hundreds of millions of dollars," he says.
This dichotomy between Anandan's grand dreams for India and the inadequacies of its internet and e-commerce ecosystem is a recurrent theme of our interview. A waiter comes to take our order. Anandan opts for iced tea. One of us asks for cold coffee and the other for Darjeeling tea. The Oberoi waiter, perhaps upselling, has other suggestions. Why not try a virgin mojito instead of a pot of tea, he asks? Bemused, we stick with our order. Shammi kebabs and tiny samosas are ordered for the table.
Before the waiter has even headed for the kitchen, Anandan is describing how quickly India will add another 100 million internet users and what Google is trying to do to prepare the way. It took India 10 years to go to 100 million internet users from 10 million and three years to go to 200 million from 100 million. "The next 100 million will take less than two years and we are almost half way through," he says, with characteristic confidence. "We are constrained only by affordable, high-quality bandwidth."
Given that this is India, this is a big hurdle. In fact, a Google demo that morning, in front of scores of press with former Indian footballer Baichung Bhutia doing a star turn for the company, had come unstuck because of a loss of connectivity. Google was showing off its new voice commands for Android phones at the Oberoi. Anandan was not at the event, but even if he had been, one imagines he would have been unfazed. In his telling of it, this is a universal problem that just happens to be worse in India. "My view is that we are constrained by bandwidth everywhere in the world. You go to New York and your phone (internet) doesn't work," he says, with exasperation. "New York!"
The more flattering parallels, as Anandan sees them, are between China and India. China has 550 million people connected to the internet and some 250 million e-commerce customers. In India, by contrast, Google's estimate is that there are 250 million internet users and 35 million that transact online. By 2020, Rajan predicts, India will have 500 million internet users, with 200 million of them buying online.
Tea with Anandan is not a sedate affair; it is more like a rollercoaster ride. This bit of wild extrapolation that India will follow China's growth trajectory is brought crashing down to earth by his observation minutes later that almost half of India's internet users access it through their mobiles. Around 95 per cent of all mobile phone services in India use prepaid SIMs and their monthly bill for internet usage is less than Rs 200. The vast majority are on low-speed broadband that prevents them from spending more time online.
At Google, he says, the company is not focusing on solving the access problem but on solving the device and the usage problem, waving his Google Nexus to make his point. Google has already helped spawn an industry of cheap smartphones through its free mobile operating software Android, which in turn has led to the huge jump in internet users in emerging markets, especially India. "India is the largest mobile-only internet market in the world already," he boasts.
But, unavailability of content in local languages is a major concern. "The first 200 million internet users were proficient in English, but as we go to 300 million or 400 million, we will need to build the non-English internet." Google has been pushing non-English content providers and publishers to come online, apart from enabling simpler keyboards and voice recognition and so on for the non-English speaking Indians.
Estonia, with just a million people, has more Estonian content on the internet than there is Hindi content in India, despite the fact that 400 million people speak the language, Anandan says.
He also points to Flipkart, InMobi and a few other Indian internet companies that already have billion-dollar valuations. "China has between 12 and 15 (such companies). It's not like China is at 50 and we are at four," he says. Then the rollercoaster swoops down again with another telling factoid that proves the two countries are thousands of miles apart. "Their digital ad spend is $15 billion. India's total ad spend is $7 billion," he says. Revenues from online advertising are Google's bread and butter.
India with its three million-strong information technology (IT) services workforce had only 100 funded tech start-ups in a year till about two years ago. After IT industry body Nasscom launched the 10,000 start-ups programme, the number has doubled over the last year to 200 start-ups. But this is not enough. The US has 15,000 funded start-ups. For once, Rajan acknowledges that as the internet trickles down to the country's villages, we will have to find more "mission-critical" uses to entice people to the internet. "Let's admit it that they are not going to use it initially for emailing, watching videos on YouTube or WhatsApping." And the tech start-up industry needs to be incentivised so that they create those mission-critical applications. Rajan has invested in almost 40 start-ups in his personal capacity.
Asked if he misses not being able to bring certain exciting Google projects to India, he replies that getting connectivity in all of India's villages is "much more powerful than introducing 10,000 driverless cars (one of Google's projects in the US)." The company's helium balloon project to deliver cheap connectivity is still being piloted in a few countries, but India is currently not one of them.
The rollercoaster has started again. "The most important priority is to get one billion Indians connected to the internet. Health care will change, education will change, governance will change," says the serial optimist on India, who says he thrives on its chaos. We observe glumly that more than half of India's population does not have toilets. "Google can't solve the toilet problem. My view is that that India will have one billion connected to the internet before (they all) have access to roads and toilets." He gestures to his phone, "The cost of these will come down," he says. "India always leapfrogs."
Anandan says he is a "perpetual India bull. I was bullish at 4.5 per cent. I am going to be extremely bullish at 6.5 per cent (GDP growth). Imagine if we unlocked the potential."
Anandan invests in dozens of companies, but is not tempted to run his own. "I like doing different things, maybe I would get bored doing just one thing." Perhaps he gets this from his father.