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Canadian market should be world's beta testers: Google Canada

If Google's rumoured $5-billion to $6-billion (U.S.) bid for Groupon is successful, it would be the largest acquisition ever for Google.


Canadian Google users have long been frustrated by having to wait until new features are implemented north of the border, and reading about cool online toys they can't try.

But if Chris O'Neill has his way, Canadians could eventually get first crack at some of the web leader's exciting new innovations.

O'Neill, who took over as Google's country director for Canada in September, said he hears all the time from Canadians who wish they could use features like Google Voice or Google TV, which are currently only available in the U.S.

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"My vision for Canada is that we reverse that trend altogether, meaning, Canada becomes a hotbed for innovation and we actually test things here first," O'Neill said in a recent interview.

In terms of population and a potential user base, Canada is a much smaller market than the U.S., so we're often overlooked when products are first rolled out. And while Canada's web users have proved they're incredibly engaged and eager to embrace new technologies, the Canadian business world has been slower to adapt, O'Neill said.

"The consumer side continues to amaze me and on the business side we're starting to see advertisers catch up ... but not at the rate that consumers are changing at, so the gap continues to grow," he said.

"My first observation was the opportunity in Canada is far bigger than I expected - and I expected it to be huge. I think there's just an enormous amount of upside in terms of businesses catching up with consumers, and unleashing a little more creativity on the web."

O'Neill said there's a clear difference when comparing the U.S. and Canadian business markets and how technology innovation is happening.

"There's a dearth of e-commerce sites here, or the depth of the quality of e-commerce is pretty shallow," he said.

"We're far behind here in Canada, so I'm underwhelmed by the actual experience."

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He said businesses can keep pace with tech savvy Canadians by helping them make the most of the technology they love to use.

"I'd like to see retailers think more in (new) ways, rather than fearing and trying to avoid the experiences and the behaviours that consumers aren't just experimenting with, (but) are becoming mainstream," O'Neill said.

He noted that giving shoppers access to free Wi-Fi would be a great selling feature to get consumers in stores, even if it does mean they could use it to check out the competition.

"Guess what, consumers are going to do it anyways, so you might as well engender that trust and deliver to the consumers what they expect."

As for when Canadians might get to try Google Voice, O'Neill can't say.

The free service has proven to be very popular in the U.S. It assigns you a special phone number and allows you to direct calls to your different lines - home, work or cell, or they can all ring for each call - depending on who's calling or the time of day.

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You also get your voicemails automatically transcribed and e-mailed to you, have access to cheap long distance, free text messaging, and different custom greetings depending on the caller.

But for now, Canadians can only read about it, not use it.

"The product managers are very aware there's adequate demand" in Canada, O'Neill said.

"I get asked this question (about availability) all the time, I just don't have an answer."

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