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India portal Rediff.com branches out

Company aims for global audience with new voice over IM, social networking and news services.

India's top portal has its eyes on a much larger audience--at home and around the world.

Rediff.com, based in Mumbai, is launching three new services aimed at expanding its local base of 35 million registered users and boosting its international audience.

The company, which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange, is expanding its offerings to include voice over instant messenger geared for low bandwidth connections, a social networking site, and a news site with computer and human-generated listings.

The instant messenger over VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service, released this week, allows people to send text messages to mobile phones and offers calls of good quality with connections of 14.4 kilobits per second, Rediff.com CEO Ajit Balakrishnan said during an interview with CNET News.com in San Francisco.


What's new:
Amid India's high-tech boom, Rediff.com, the country's top portal site, is debuting new services such as voice over IM, social networking and news services.

Bottom line:
The company is looking to appeal to an international audience and hopes that the new offerings will attract consumers both at home and abroad.

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VoIP IM helps people "speak to people in other parts of the world for free. It's a utility tool, not just something that teenagers use," he said.

A key focus is that it will work on low-tech systems. Broadband in India means 128kbps, and it remains fairly sparse. Eighty percent of computer users in India are still using Windows 98, Balakrishnan said, and roughly 60 percent of PC Internet access takes place through Internet cafes.

Rediff.com, which is in English, eventually will offer chat "avatars"--or personalized animations--that can be used on gaming platforms, Balakrishnan said. It is currently developing compatible games with Chinese developers. "Gaming is showing traction in cybercafe markets," he said.

The company also has launched a beta of its new India Connexions social networking Web site, which already has 500,000 testers, Balakrishnan said. The site, which will be opened up for a wider release in three to four weeks, will be particularly useful for getting recommendations for small businesses--hotels in Goa, guitar teachers in Bombay, for example--that don't have their own Web sites, he said.

"Commercial search is low in India" because of the dearth of business Web sites, he said.

The company is working with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay to speed up the India Connexions site. Right now, a search might take 30 to 40 seconds, Balakrishnan said.

"It needs to have that instant gratification," he said.

In addition, Rediff.com's new Newshound service will be available for beta testing in several weeks. It will include headlines from about 700 news sources with news updated every five minutes. A human editor will summarize the most important news alongside the headlines, which link back to the original stories.

Journalism is being heavily influenced by the Internet in India, Balakrishnan said. Because many people access the Internet through cell phones, stories are only around 160 words long, he said.

Rediff.com, launched in 1995, offers e-mail in English, Hindi and a dozen other major regional languages, as well as news, blogs, shopping, radio, information on jobs, movies and sports, and its own matchmaking services. Eventually, e-mail users will be able to search their messages for specific keywords.

Although most of the users reside in India, the Web site has established a growing pool of readers who have moved from India to North America or Europe. The matchmaking section on the international site is actually featured more prominently than on the Indian site.

"Matchmaking is an important part of our business," Balakrishnan said.

"Over 5 million matrimonial profiles to choose from!" an ad featuring a photogenic Indian woman promises on the front page of the site. Another ad in the movie reviews and news section offers relationship analysis reports.

Tech in India India's famous "Bollywood" film industry is also featured on the Web site, with Bollywood music ring tones available for download and movie reviews and interviews. Reflecting one actor's quest for serious roles, "I'd rather cut my throat than sing" is the headline to a Rediff.com interview with Khalid Mohamed, a leading man in a new movie titled "Silsilay."

Yahoo, founded around the same time, is the second biggest portal in India, followed by Microsoft's MSN, Balakrishnan said. Google, meanwhile, has no substantial domestic presence but is expected to push into the market eventually, he said.

The trend to outsource technology jobs to India is creating a more tech-savvy populace and has propelled many laborers into jobs with higher education requirements and greater skills, Balakrishnan said. "Innovation is what will drive things, so the low-end worker will (continue to) be contracted out."

Outsourcing, though, represents just the beginning for India's tech market and will be followed by more service and product companies, he added.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.