To cater to them, within days of each other, last week, two of India’s most popular Internet services—Facebook and Google—announced features that make it easier for users to create and consume content in their own languages.
Google announced a new tab for search on mobile where users can flip between English and Hindi search results. Earlier in May, it announced a significant update to its Translate function, which now allows users to select any text on any app and see what it translates to, instead of switching between apps and copy-pasting text every time you needed to do this.
On Wednesday, it announced an update to its Now on Tap function, where users can select an entire screen on their phones to be translated. This isn’t available for Indian languages yet, but support for more languages is expected soon.
Facebook is not far behind, in what looks like the last frontier for these two companies, and has introduced a way for users to post in multiple languages simultaneously, increasing the reach their posts have and creating new connections between people of different languages.
Indic computing, or Internet services in Indian languages, has long been recognised as a necessity for the average Indian to truly reap the benefits of the digital world.
“These are small steps, but in the right direction. All of these companies should look at long term initiatives for enabling the Indic computing ecosystem. It is in their interest as much as anyone else’s. Today, if you are using a phone in Hindi, you have to download multiple apps, for the keyboard, for the dictionary and so on. The experience is not seamless, and it has to be," said Venkatesh Hariharan, director, Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, which works in the area of technology for development.
According to a June 2015 report by Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International, about 127 million consume content in local languages. This was a 47% jump year-on-year.
However, localisation hasn’t happened to the scale that it was expected, despite the government’s investments in creating Indian language technology, and the glaring need for such services.
What little content is available in Indian languages is difficult to discover, and unless discovery happens, content providers are not motivated enough to monetise existing content and create more. A lack of language diversity in digital advertising is also a deterrent, say experts.
“What content could not do, commerce might do. Commerce companies interface with people who just cannot use a smartphone in English and therefore we are seeing steps to localise content for them," said Hariharan.
Companies like Ola (run by ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd) and Paytm (run by One97 Communications Pvt. Ltd) are offering parts of their services—for the drivers in Ola’s case and sellers in Paytm’s—in various regional languages. E-commerce marketplace Snapdeal’s mobile website too is available in 10 languages.
It isn’t like companies haven’t tried to capitalise on this opportunity. News aggregator NewsHunt, which aggregates regional language content, for instance, has been installed 90 million times and has raised over $40 million in venture funding.
In January, Shabda Nagari, a Hindi social networking portal, raised $200,000 from Kanpur Angels and other investors. Indus OS, a start-up, makes an Android-based operating system that simplifies the Android experience for first time smartphone users and makes all functions on the OS available in various Indian languages. The start-up, run by OSLabs Technology India Pvt. Ltd, is also working on a text-to-speech technology in association with the Department of Electronics and Information Technology.
As India’s Internet companies realise their growth has to be spurred on by non-English speakers, with the increased attention this segment is getting from the likes of Google and Facebook, the growth of the availability of Internet services in regional languages is bound to pick up, say experts.
“We have been growing at 35% month-on-month, which is much better than last year," said Vivekananda Pani, co-founder, Reverie Technologies, a start-up that offers language-as-a-service option that helps other companies localise their content, and works with companies like Snapdeal and Ola.
Pani also said that a big barrier companies have in terms of offering multilingual services is that the founders themselves are comfortable with English and if they don’t really understand the pain points of their customer, it becomes difficult to develop solutions for them.