Google and the Future of the Global Web

I’ll admit it — I was skeptical when I saw a quote from Eric Schmidt about the future of the global web, stating that everyone on earth will be online by 2020. Having traveled to parts of the world where even electricity is scarce, I wondered how the residents of these places would have a hope of being connected to the internet within just seven years. After all, only 38.8% of the world’s population has internet access today, according to Internet World Stats, and 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 per day.

I guessed that Schmidt’s projection probably depends on how you define “everyone.” Would 99% percent of the world’s population qualify, or does “everyone” strictly mean every single person on earth? Before people can connect to the internet, they need to have a device that enables them to do so — and a place to charge those devices. That means everyone on earth would need money to buy (or borrow) a device and access (even if only temporary) to electricity. Taking into account global poverty and current internet reach into account, it seems far-fetched to think that by 2020, the population of the entire planet will have both of these bigger-picture issues resolved. Right?

Well, in spite of my doubts, I had to admit that I was impressed to read in Wired magazine about Project Loon, Google’s project to give internet access to billions of people via solar-powered balloons circling the earth. This project isn’t just a big dream for sometime far off into the future — it’s already being piloted now (see below).

In fact, as these Google balloons have been floating around the earth, they’ve even been spotted in the sky and reported by unsuspecting locals as unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The balloons are equipped with Wi-Fi transmitters that communicate with receivers on the ground. Using something as traditional as ballooning to enable internet access to spread around the world is certainly a novel idea. While this project is what Google calls a “moon shot,” a shoot-for-the-moon kind of endeavor, the people involved obviously hope that it will succeed.

One thing is certain — even if Google’s Project Loon does not succeed in bringing internet access to everyone on earth, the reality is that internet access continues to expand at an incredible pace. Google isn’t alone in its quest to bring the internet to more people., an initiative that includes partners such as Facebook, Nokia, and Samsung, has this at the top of its list of priorities as well.

What are the implications for people involved in translation, as the internet continues to expand, and companies continue to translate websites? Experts already agree that not only is English in decline as a lingua franca, but the entire notion of a lingua franca is disappearing. The internet is swiftly enabling more of the world’s 6 to 7,000 languages to have a voice. Granted, businesses, which spend the most money on translation, will first focus on those languages that are deemed economically important. However, those companies focused on future-proofing their revenue will want to gain early entrenchment in even those economies that are in very early stages of development.

For-profit businesses in the past made strategic investments in steam liners and railroads to transport goods to people in faraway places, primarily because they could reach more customers in doing so. Likewise, today’s internet companies are, unsurprisingly, investing in ways to transport information to people who currently do not have access, because it’s in their businesses’ interests to do so. How far will they go? Their definition of what makes business sense will no doubt be the key factor in determining not only which languages become more important for translation, but whether internet access truly ever reaches every person, or merely every potential customer. Gladly, what defines a potential customer is increasingly more global, and evolving right before our very eyes.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).