Google executive: 'It would be a privilege to serve Chinese users'
Despite concerted regulatory pressure from Beijing in recent years, Google still believes the Chinese market is a "huge opportunity" for the global internet giant.
"China is obviously one of the biggest markets out there," said top Google executive Sundar Pichai. "It would be a privilege to serve Chinese users. We obviously have had a set of issues in the past, but we also see opportunities."
Google exited the Chinese market January 2010, following what senior vice president David Drummond described at the time as a "sophisticated cyber attack originating from China". Pichai made his comments in an interview with Forbes in the wake of increased censorship and blocking of Google services in China.
While Google's footprint in the Chinese search market has shrunk from more than 35 per cent in 2009 to around 1.5 per cent today, Android, the company's mobile operating system, is hugely popular. According to a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology white paper, Android's market share in China was 78.4 per cent in 2013, compared to 15.6 per cent for iOS.
However, though both Samsung and Xiaomi, China's top smartphone brands, use Android as the basis of their mobile operating systems, most Chinese users do not have access to Google's search and mapping services. According to research firm CCS Insight, by 2015 more than 30 per cent of Android phones globally do not access Google services, with the majority of those users being Chinese.
Chinese tech giants are also starting to encroach on Google's operating system dominance, increasing the company's need to return to the table. This month, Alibaba, which is developing its own operating system, bought a minority stake in Chinese handset maker Meizu for US$590 million. Tencent, whose WeChat messaging app is hugely popular in China, is due to launch a trial version of its Tencent OS this week.
Tencent and Alibaba are largely following Xiaomi's lead. The company's MIUI operating system, which, though built on top of Android, is developed separately and does not use Google services, is used by more than 70 million users worldwide, according to Xiaomi vice president Hugo Barra.
"Android is powering a lot of innovation in China," Pichai told Forbes. "That's important to me ... We have seen a lot of interest from Chinese developers on Google Play, because the extent to which Android is used. We see those as opportunities ahead."
"If we can figure out a model by which we can serve those users, it would be a privilege to do so. So I don’t think of China as a black hole. I see it as a huge opportunity in which we are playing as an enabling platform today and hopefully we have a chance to offer other services in the future."
Pichai didn't elaborate on what kind of "other services" Google wanted to provide in China. Since late last year, most of the company's key products, including its email service Gmail and the foundation of its business, Google Search, have been blocked by the Chinese government amid fast increasing internet censorship.
While Pichai said there has been a "lot of interest" in Google returning to China, he would not be drawn on a timescale: "No comments on that." He also noted that such a development was not entirely in Google's control, suggesting the Chinese government would largely have the final say.
Google is not the only major US tech firm with its sights on China. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has made a number of visits to the country in recent months, including giving a talk at Tsinghua University in Mandarin.
In December photos from Chinese censorship tzar Lu Wei's visit to Facebook's headquarters showed a copy of Xi Jinping's book, The Governance of China, on Zuckerberg's desk.
"I bought this book for my colleagues as well," Chinese media quoted Zuckerberg as telling Lu. "I want them to understand the socialism with Chinese characteristics."