Will the Internet grow as predicted by the Indian Media?

At the beginning of the new year, newspapers make claims that local languages are the “next big thing” on the Internet. I rarely find any real evidence in these articles –  compelling applications, or new sectors, or startups are missing . The assumption that the Internet is all about ‘search’ and ‘content’ remains the same as the previous year. Predictably, these articles are filled with quotes from the same companies (Search and Content Giants) and numbers from the same associations, and finally, the same old arguments –

  • We’ve exhausted the English-speaking population. Where will the projected growth in online population come from? (No prize for guessing – the non-English folks who read vernacular newspapers!)
  • Domain names which allow local scripts have arrived
  • Penetration of smartphones and Internet access through mobiles is on the rise
  • And finally, the 3G and 4G revolutions will propel the reach of the Internet

Despite these arguments, the online growth of pure vernacular users has been slow and without any major breakthroughs. From my experience in this market, several issues need to be addressed before we see rapid growth. For instance,

  • The high cost of human translation and low CPMs prevent websites from launching multilingual clones (IRCTC is planning a beta launch of its Hindi version very soon. Why did Indian Railways wait so many years to cater to the language spoken by majority of its travelers?)
  • Lack of meaningful UGC such as local Wikipedia pages, or Yahoo answers in local languages
  • Unavailability of reliable machine translation and OCR for Indian languages
  • Not enough profit to give each language the effort it needs. Grouping them all under one portal is not user-friendly.
  • The keyboard has always been a challenge and changing the consumer’s perception of “English-friendly computers” requires a wide and innovative marketing push
  • Many don’t understand why they need a tablet hence tablets have not taken off as per a new report. Touch technology cannot succeed when the perceived utility is low and prevailing inertia is high.
  • The commercial aspect of English attracts India’s youth – English fluency ensures a better job and better social standing
  • Large Web companies continue to focus on users who “think in English” (transliteration) and their tools and Email interfaces assume working knowledge of English. Such users comprise the 150 Million Indians who understand English. Well, what about the rest?
  • VCs need 5-year exits so the government must fund this space proactively. Instead, its mandating outdated solutions developed by govt-funded organizations. To begin with, policies should encourage PC makers to provide a variety of pre-installed language tools giving users more choices.
  • Compelling applications exist – Facebook is a great example. However, the number of users who have declared a second language in their Facebook profile is dismal. Will an English-speaking user invite someone who does not understand English into his network?
  • We need a good answer to the common man’s question – “What would I do with the Internet that I cannot already do with mobile/TV/newspaper/stores”?

We need to think deeply about our society and the inherent prejudices and boundaries that languages create among us. How will a family of non-English users benefit from the Internet? How will they benefit even if some of them have not studied beyond 8th standard? How will they benefit when one of them takes up a job in a nearby city? How will they supplement their income or improve their health with this new medium?

We have to understand their problems and come up with meaningful solutions. The Indian Media needs to bring focus to sectors such as education, finance and health where the Internet can make a difference rather than keep harping on sectors such as news, entertainment and communication which are dominated by voice and TV. ‘Content’ and ‘Search’ are only the building blocks. They’re the salt and sugar of the Internet world. Where is the delicious recipe that will make millions jump online?

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5 comments

  1. Its very important to understand that internet usage in India – especially by those from smaller towns and lower income groups – is always attached with an aspiration value of going to new level, being equal with their urban and more affluent counter-parts. And this always means moving to English – however bad and full of errors it may be. So if Internet grows in India, and spreads to segments not yet covered, it would be worthwhile to expect growth in English speaking population, rather than expecting spread of vernacular languages online.
    Also one needs to understand properly this so-called ‘spread of internet over phone’. People still don’t read content – may it be in English or any other language. That part of online population which actually appreciates good content is very small. All that people are interested is video, photos and adult content which is kind-of language independent. Even e-commerce (ticketing, deals) doesn’t really need much advanced English.
    I think the opportunity lies in creating internet which is more visual, connects directly by sight of it rather than reading. That’s where touch-screens on phones will start becoming game-changers!

    • Anjali Gupta

      I agree! It is highly likely that English will become the first language of Indians in a decade or two. There are more searches for “learn to speak english” across all states in India, vs. searches for vernacular content.
      A lot of junk and spam resides in the lower spectrum of Internet usage today. Video is an opportunity, however, again junk can dominate here too because people need to be in jobs which requires them to think and not just look for entertainment. So, games and entertainment will continue to dominate the touch screen world too. The education system for the larger segment of our population is outdated and of very poor quality, and lacks tech-enabled teachers. I think changing that in a user-friendly way is the first step. People should feel empowered vs. feeling entertained by Internet.

  2. rajesh

    http://www.pluggd.in/will-regional-languages-attract-a-sizeable-chunk-of-online-users-soon-297/

    and http://www.pluggd.in/indian-languages-on-internet-297/ will answer your query.

    long story short – Indians are ambitious and learning how to read/write English is the next big thing for them.

  3. deepakmalhotra

    Should the purpose be to make Indian’s understand English better or make the web understandable to Indian’s? Given the reason’s you mentioned above and also the general trend/focus the former might win…though that shouldn’t stop both sides progressing and may be they might meet somewhere in the middle.

  4. Pingback: Is 2012 the year for recognition of Indian languages on the internet? | BG Mahesh | Mahesh | mahesh.com

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