Friday, June 20, 2014

Will the Internet kill Indian languages?

India might be home to six of the top 20 spoken languages in the world, but its languages are languishing in the online world.

When it comes to software exports, India is rightly considered a software superpower. With 86 billion dollars in exports, India’s software industry has helped companies around the world achieve significant improvements in productivity. It is time that the industry’s formidable capabilities are deployed to empower Indian citizens to use IT in their own languages.

In contrast to the healthy state of Indian software exports, the state of Indian languages online is a picture of malnourishment. Hindi is the fourth largest spoken language in the world with 360 million speakers, but, on Wikipedia, it has a mere 101,297 articles, and ranks 49, as on 1st April, 2014. Hindi ranks just below Nynorsk, one of the two official languages in Norway. It should be noted that Nynorsk is not even the most popular language in Norway, a tiny country with a population that barely crosses five million. That honour goes to BokmÃ¥l (literally "book tongue"), which is the preferred written standard for 85–90% of the population in Norway.

The state of the other Indian languages is no different, as can be seen from the accompanying table. How has Hindi sunk so low that it is lower than a languages which is not even the most popular language in a country with five million people? Even as the Internet flourishes in India, why are Indian languages stagnating online? What can be done to salvage the situation and give Indian languages the pride-of-place they deserve in the online world?

Why so malnourished?

The average Indian language IT user has to traverse such a vast range of hurdles, that it is a miracle that there is any content in Indian languages at all. The most basic starting point for computing in Indian languages, the keyboard, was not easily available until the advent of smartphones and their software-driven, touch screen keyboards. In many parts of the world, if you buy a computing device, it would come bundled with a keyboard for the national language of that country. Not so in India, despite the fact that the number of speakers in most Indian languages exceeds the population of most European countries!

Then, let us talk of font, the most basic necessity for computing in any language. A really good font is a marriage of art (calligraphy) and technology, and we have no dearth of either skill in India. The average English user probably has a choice of 60-70 high quality fonts to choose from. The average Hindi user has a choice of 3-4 modern Hindi fonts that they have to install themselves. The catch is that most average users would never go through the trouble of installing a font themselves. It is for this reason that there are only two categories of Indian language users online -- journalists who are supported by their in-house tech departments, and “early adopters” who are undeterred by the challenges of installing fonts, keyboards and other bits of software.

In his classic book, “Crossing the Chasm,” technology marketing guru, Geoffrey Moore talks of how there is a vast chasm between early adopters, and the other two categories that follow them on the technology adoption curve -- the early majority and the late majority. While early adopters are willing to put up with imperfections and embrace change, the early majority want to enhance their productivity and want technology to work flawlessly. The Indian language computing market (or Indic Computing, in short) is stuck in the chasm between the early adopters and the early majority.

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The early majority and the late majority categories form the significant bulk of users and these users are not going to fiddle with installing fonts, keyboards and other paraphernalia. To entice them, computing devices will have to work out of the box, in Indian languages. In other words, Indic users have to be given parity with the English world, and devices should work in Indian languages with the same ease and efficiency that they do in the English language. A user should be able to unpack his device and get started with using it in Hindi, Gujarati or any other Indian language with a minimum of fuss.

The way forward

India’s Domestic IT industry is dominated by users in the English language, who constitute approximately 15 percent of the country’s population, adding up to 180 million people, in a population of 1.2 billion people. India has around 213 million Internet users, which adds up to a 17.5 percent penetration. To expand the market, and bring the next 300 million users into the digital world, we must empower them to access IT in their native languages. Not doing this could significantly limit the headroom for growth, and stunt the domestic IT industry.

Enabling computing in Indian languages is essential for growing the domestic IT industry. This will unleash the next wave of innovation in the app ecosystem, software product development, Internet services, e-commerce and other related areas.

The Indian Government has a group called Technology Development in Indian Languages (TDIL), which has developed many Indian language technologies like fonts, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) etc. However, these technologies need to be re-packaged in such a manner that they reach millions of users. The software industry has created bits and pieces of the ecosystem, but these efforts are disaggregated and lack scale. A few smartphone vendors have brought smartphones to the market with Indian language interfaces. However, this capability needs to be brought to market at affordable price points. To get the next 300 million users online in Indian languages, industry, government, hardware and software companies will have to work across the value chain to deliver a great user experience. The alternative is to sit back, and watch Indian languages die slowly in the Internet age.

(Note: An edited version of this article appeared in Hindustan Times edition dated June 17, 2014.