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Internet Cos Not Content With Just English

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Publication: The Economic Times Mumbai; Date:2012 Jan 25; Section:Corporate; Page Number 7

Internet Cos Not Content With Just English


Yahoo, Google, apps developers look to tap the fast-growing nonEnglish space in India by adding content in more vernacular languages
SHELLEY SINGH NEW DELHI

About a year ago, Yahoo India, the news-to-entertainment portal, hired Prem Panicker from rediff - .com. He spearheads Yahoos non-English language strategy that is fast growing beyond Hindi. After adding Tamil and Marathi in the past three months, it plans to add content in another 4-5 languages this year, including Bangla and Malayalam. We will spend 2012 building the language play, says Panicker, managing director of Yahoo India. Elsewhere, the Indian Railways website one of the countriess leading in ecommerce, irctc.co.in has launched a beta version in Hindi, which is being used by one-third of its users. Leading mobile value-added services (VAS) player IMI Mobile is looking to develop applications in vernacular languages. And come April, in a first, domain names will be available in seven Indian languages. From content publishers to ecommerce players, from app developers to hardware makers, the myriad parts of the Internet space are shifting gears in the non-English language space. A matter of compulsion is how Subho Ray, president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), describes the rush to build a language play. Where do you go if you want to expand? he asks. According to the IAMAI, the Internet user base in India crossed 120 million in end-2011. Ray reckons that, at 150-160 million, most of the English-understanding population would be covered, and that providers will have to lean more on non-English languages to add subscribers subsequently.

NEXT FRONTIER
According to Nitin Mathur of Yahoo India, 85-90% of the Internet users come online for content consumption to read, be it news or product reviews, or for social networking. The remaining 10-15% comes online to buy and sell goods or services. The former category, particularly new users, is increasingly seeking content in the respective vernacular languages, says Mathur, senior director of marketing. Social-networking website Facebook, for example, is available to users in six Indian languages. Vernacular is a fast growing area, adds Rishi Khiani, CEO of Times Internet. In our network, we have more users logging on to Navbharat Times and Maharashtra Times. Google India estimates a user base of about 350 million, existing and potential, resulting from a critical mass being attained in the Internet space in 7-8 languages, other than English. These include Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bangla. Although Hindi and Bangla are among the worlds top 10 languages in terms of the number of people speaking them, a similar list for online has no Indian presence. This could change soon. Google has 150 engineers organised under a group called emerging users problem. Based in Bangalore, they look at how to improve Internet access for users in emerging markets across the world, with India being

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Internet Cos Not Content With Just English

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their top priority. The company offers transliteration in 14 Indian languages, Google News in four languages, machine translation for six languages, and virtual keyboards for most Indian languages. In 2003, Microsoft India launched bhashaindia . com , a localisation portal that offers font converters and virtual keyboards in about a dozen Indian languages. In the last two years, its user base has spurted to 50,000, from 10,000. Similarly, in 2011, Nokia started a project called Project Bhasha, under which its Bangalore research centre collaborates with key Indian design institutions to identify ideas and designs that will encourage the use of Indian languages on mobile phones. Nokia phones already support 11 Indian languages. The big boys aside, several start-ups are also eyeing the non-English space, especially in applications. Delhi-based Hazel Media, founded in 2010, is among the early starters in vernacular applications. It has apps for smart-phones and tablets in five Indian languages: Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Bangla. Branded under its mpustak umbrella, these apps help users learn maths, and know about places and animals. Pointing to the growth of local users and need for languages, BG Mahesh, founder & MD, Greynium Information Technologies, which runs portals like oneindia.in says: When we launched in 2006, 70% of the traffic came from NRIs. Now, it has shifted to India. He estimates there are 15,000-20,000 blogs in Indian languages, mainly in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Indi-Blogger, a local language blog portal, currently hosts about 1,500 Hindi blogs, against 350 in 2010.

LOCAL IDENTITY
Besides content, a challenge for language developers has been that web addresses can be had either in dot com or dot in, that too in English. This is set to change. In April, the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) which manages the dot in registry and routes Internet traffic in the country will start offering dot bharat domain names in India. This will be in seven languages: Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, Gujarati and Punjabi. This will give businesses the option to register their Internet presence in a local language. NIXI also plans to reach out to 250,000 panchayats to encourage them to have their own web presence, which can facilitate citizen interaction at the grassroots level. Such moves not only attest to the countrys growing Internet user base, but also underscore the significance of the language play. Its in line with mature Internet economies, where more than 90% of local companies have local addresses dot de in Germany, dot jp in Japan and dot cn in China. Its been slow growth, but one thats galloping on the back of increasing momentum, says Dr Govind, CEO of NIXI. In the next four years, India will have 400 million Internet users. Cautions Lalit Katragadda, India products head at Google: That growth could hit a wall if ample local language options are not available.

LOCAL HURDLES
While experts are unanimous on languages being significant to the growth of the Internet in India, some pieces of the puzzle are still missing. For example, hardware players are not yet installing locallanguage keyboards on laptops. Dell, Lenovo and HP say the market is not large enough. As a result, users have to either use virtual keyboards or transliteration tools; the latters appeal is limited since it is primarily English language content that is being translated. However, hardware makers add that, while there are production limitations in laptops, providing virtual keyboards in multiple languages is easier in new gadgets like tablets. In 2011, Bangalore-based Devraj Group launched a tablet PC with menu options in 11 Indian languages.

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Internet Cos Not Content With Just English

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Ray of IAMAI sees the paucity of language options on hardware as a chicken-and-egg issue: content is not there as there arent enough users; and there arent enough users as content is not there. For example, Mahesh of Greynium points to content related to agriculture: it is mostly international information that has limited applicability to Indian farming conditions. Theres also little incentive for companies to diversify in languages unless they have deep pockets and can self-sustain for a couple of years. The government levies a 10.33% service charge, says Ray. You dont have a big enough market to recover that or advertising to support it. Hence, local takes a back seat. While vernacular is growing, advertisers have been slow to spend on campaigns here, adds Khiani of Times Internet. Though we are now seeing a shift, with FMCG players targeting rural markets and looking at vernacular sites to push products.

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