Google with Globe Introduces Free Services for Not-So-Smart Phones in the Philippines

Even if President Aquino didn't have a fancy phone, he could enjoy some smartphone-esque features. Photo: Reuters. 

The Philippines may have one of the most wired populations in Southeast Asia—with a mobile-phone penetration of 100%—but only a minority can afford the latest smartphones and the hefty data plans that accompany them.

Google, in partnership with local telco Globe Telecom, is hoping to change that—allowing users of even the most basic Internet-enabled phones access to some smartphone-esque functions they once envied. Launched in Manila Thursday and unique to the Philippines, Free Zone powered by Google lets them check their Gmail inboxes and use the tech giant's search functions, all for free.

Free Zone's offerings—the ability to surf websites, check Gmail and use the Google+ social-media app—is undoubtedly stripped down from the myriad of functions that smartphone users enjoy, and limited to the staple offerings that define Google.

Gmail, for example, won't be as sophisticated as the versions that run on iPhones, Android-powered smartphones and RIM's Blackberry devices. And Free Zone users can't surf the Web for free by typing websites into their phone's browser; they have to go through Google's search function.

Still, the new software—available only to Globe subscribers—will bring the mobile Internet to many more in the Southeast Asian nation without worry about the availability of WiFi or heavy data charges.

"The open Web is only as open as it is affordable," said Abdel Karim Mardini, a product manager at Google. "We're hoping Free Zone will make the mobile Internet feel like a necessity that everyone can use, rather than a luxury."

Google declined to say whether it or its partner, Globe Telecom, will be footing the data costs of Free Zone, initially available to more than 30 million Globe subscribers until the end of March, but says it designed applications accessible via Free Zone not to be too taxing in terms of data or the phone's processing power. Plans for the service after March 2013 remain undecided.

Multinationals are increasingly trying to tap Southeast Asia's growing consumer class—not just people with incomes allowing for leisure holidays and the latest Blackberry or iPhone models, but budget conscious, low-income earners who are benefitting from high growth rates and record foreign investment.

In the Philippines, mobile is a growing phenomenon; it's the 12th largest mobile phone market in the world, according to a report by Mobile Monday, an open community of those in the industry that shares market trends and reports on mobile growth. The penetration rate will soon surpass 100%, with some Filipinos owning more than one handset. Still, only about 30% use smartphones, which means companies like Google and local telcos have huge untapped opportunities in mobile internet connectivity.

Google hopes to introduce the technology to more countries in coming months. For now, Globe subscribers in the Philippines can access Free Zone through on the phone's default browser, or text LIBRE to 8888 on their phones.

The Wall Street Journal

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