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?