Aditya MadanapalleOct 19, 2016 11:19:52 IST
This year in India, more feature phone units were shipped to consumers than smartphones, despite analyst expectations that 2016 would finally be the year smartphone sales would exceed those of feature phones. There is low perceived utility for these devices, and one of the reasons is the lack of anything to do on the phone.
Access to critical services such as healthcare, banking, education and governance is restricted because of low availability of content and services in regional languages. To bridge this gap, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has mandated that all smartphones are to have support for one official Indian language apart from English and Hindi by July 2017, according to a report in VCCircle.
Requiring integration of a regional language is the latest in a series of measures taken by the government to make smartphones more accessible and relevant to the local population. India has 122 languages with more than 10,000 speakers, which is in itself a massive but fragmented customer base. India has low literacy levels and lower digital literacy levels. First time users of data packs on smartphones are not familiar with the richness of the ecosystem, and perceive the usage charges as exorbitant. TRAI tweaked the regulations to allow for year long data packs instead of 90 days, to bring down the cost and encourage internet use.
MEITY had called for a meeting between Microsoft, Google and Rediff to implement e-mail addresses in regional languages, starting with Hindi. Today, we reported that a company called DataMail launched email addresses in Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Marathi. Doordarshan is attracting smartphone users by starting free broadcasts of Doordarshan content to mobile devices. The mobile devices need a DVB-T2 dongle to access the television services. There is an Android app for viewing the content. The Digital Terrestrial Television services from Doordarshan are available in sixteen cities, with six channels being relayed. The most important of these is DD Regional or DD Kisan.
One of the best efforts at making smartphone technologies available in local regional languages is Indus OS. The operating system is installed on the device in the factory itself, and cannot be installed on any device. There are 12 regional languages supported by Indus OS, with text to speech supported for 9 of these languages. A patented keyboard makes it easy to type in the regional languages. A helpful feature is swipe right to translate and swipe left to transliterate. There is an App Bazaar with a focus on regional and local apps and services.
There are numerous efforts to develop the fonts, language packs, and dictionaries needed to support the consumption of technology in regional languages. The Indic Project provides open source local language infrastructure for web, mobile and embedded applications. The Indic Keyboard for the Android Operating System allows for text input in twenty three Indian languages, with transliteration support for many of them. Noto is an open source font developed by Google and Monotype that aims to create a homogeneous font for all the languages in the Unicode standard.
Google is particularly active in creating products from the ground up meant just for India. Tap to translate is an expected feature that allows users to simply select text to translate them to a regional language in real time. There is also a camera app in the works that translates content on the screen itself. In states with a significant Hindi speaking population users can toggle Google search results between Hindi and English. There is a Hindi Input App that allows users to quickly type in Hindi.
At the Google for India event in Delhi last month, Caesar Sengupta, Vice-President of Next Billion Users said, “Our goal has not just been to help more Indians get online — but also to help Indians create the online experience they want; one that serves their needs and enables them to have an impact on the entire world. So we have been thinking about how to build products and services for this wave of new users — products that work for any level of connectivity, in local Indian languages, and across the devices that are most frequently used in India.”
These are language infrastructure building efforts, but what will really make smartphones relevant to users is original content. We need apps, games, videos, and VR content created locally, for the locals, mindful of the topics, ideas and approaches relevant to the regional population. Translating content and services is a good start, but there is immense scope for production of local language and regional content. Translation can only take you so far, making already existing content available in different languages is going to be only a patchwork solution, without addressing the underlying problem. There is just no substitute for locally made original content in regional languages.
As of now, the content creation process is stuck in a rut. There is little consumption of local content in regional languages because there is less production of local content in regional languages. There is less production of local content in regional languages because there is little consumption of local content in regional languages. The technology is in place, the next generation of data tariffs are getting increasingly cheaper, but the only major roadblock is original regional content. There are encouraging signs, Indus OS reports that the traffic consumption by its users is expected to grow by five times by the end of the year, with each user consuming one gigabyte of data per month.
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