Need more local language content for Internet to bloom in India

While local languages could hold the key to the growth in numbers, the task is easier said than done

Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Mumbai: The Internet, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide Web, has transformed the way human beings communicate and promises to dramatically alter communication further when the Internet of Things—the trend of machines using the Internet to communicate with each other—comes of age.

The Internet itself is hardly recognizable with the advent of wearables like Google Inc.’s Glasses (Google Glass), the company’s driverless car, Samsung’s Smart Watch, Apple Inc.’s (rumoured) iWatch, drones from the likes of Amazon Inc. and so on.

While these developments raise privacy issues too, the benefits of the world wide Web cannot be dismissed and they would have been more widespread had it not been for the 40-odd countries including Egypt and China that continue to censor the Internet.

India, too, is putting in place a Central Monitoring System (CMS) to tap phone calls, emails, faxes (still used extensively by our government) and Internet servers. While CMS may raise more issues of privacy, in the absence of a Privacy Act in the country, it may not scare away many Indian from the Internet.

What, however, will continue to hamper the growth of the Internet in India is the fact that the country needs more Indians to access the Internet in their own language.

Internet users in India could increase by 24% if local language content is provided on the Internet, said a 25 February report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (Iamai) and IMRB International.

In rural areas, 43% of the non-users of the Internet said they would adopt the medium if the content was provided in local language. In urban areas, 13.5% of the non-users mentioned that they would use the Internet if content is provided in local languages.

The report identifies local language as the single largest driver of Internet growth in rural areas. The findings were based on a survey of 35 cities in seven states.

Among the current users of the Internet, the report found the current local language usage penetration among active Internet users (those who used the Internet at least once a month) is around 42%.

While local language content users in urban India are not much different from English language content users with email, news and search being the main activities, in rural India, however, entertainment, social networking and email remain the primary purpose of using online local language content.

In rural India, 27% of the users use Hindi to access online content followed by Marathi and Tamil. In urban India too, 60% of the users access online content in Hindi followed by Tamil and Marathi, the report said.

Also, the fact that number of online user visits from mobiles has risen from 6.31 million in January 2013 to 20.70 million in January 2014, according to Iamai, is a positive development.

In June 2013, India had 190 million Internet users, of which 130 million came from urban India. In October, the number of Internet users reached 205 million and is estimated to reach 213 million by December 2013. The number could touch 300 million by 2014, according to industry estimates.

However, while local languages could hold the key to the growth in numbers, the task is easier said than done in a country that has 22 official languages and over 1,500 dialects.

Some steps are being taken, though.

On 21 February, Google India hosted a two-day Hackathon and workshop in Bangalore focused on designing and creating Android applications in Indian languages.

“The next 300 million Internet users in India won’t use English. That’s why we’re working on enabling the Internet in Indian languages, which is the key to driving growth,” said Rajan Anandan, managing director of Google India, on the launch of the initiative.

Yahoo India offers email in eight Indian regional languages. Microsoft has localized Windows and Office in 12 Indian languages that include Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu.

But Indian language scripts are complex. So we have companies like Noida-based Luna Ergonomics that has developed the Panini keypad, which is currently available for nine major Indian languages including Hindi and Marathi.

And the Indian government’s own Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) has developed many true type font (TTF) and open type font (OTF) for Indian languages including Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Punjabi, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, and Sanskrit.

This helps particularly since people find it easy to type a web address in their own language and the alphabet “becomes easier to create, memorise, transcribe, interpret, guess, and relate to”, according to CDAC’s website.

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