NOT JUST english vinglish
Tech companies are betting big on 500 million Indians who are expected to use vernacular languages online by 2021. Smarphones, apps & operating systems are getting ready
Till a year ago, Minnath Ghode had no option but to use the Roman script on his phone’s keypad to type messages in Marathi or Hindi. But then he got a smartphone that allowed him to use vernacular letters. “Now, most of my WhatsApp messages are in Hindi and Marathi,” says the 23-year-old postgraduate student of dietetics and food service management in Yavatmal, near Nagpur, over phone.
Like Ghode, millions across India now have the option of using a language of their choice on their smartphones. While English continues to have a high aspirational quotient in India, new internet users like Ghode are opting to access internet content in their native tongues — or, at the most, use a combination of the vernacular and English. Their experience will only become better as companies gear up to tap the potential in this space.
According to a 2017 report by KPMG and Google, “Indian Languages — Defining India’s Internet”, there were 234 million Indian-language internet users and 175 million English users in 2016. By 2021, the gap between the two groups is expected to widen. Users of Indian languages are expected to more than double to 536 million, while English users will increase to only 199 million. Nine out of 10 new internet users between 2016 and 2021 will use local languages, said the report.
The study, which surveyed over 7,000 urban and rural smartphone users across eight major languages, also said 99% of Indian-language smartphone users access the internet using their smartphones, against a national average of 78%. This is why most of the efforts to reach out to these users are focused on mobile devices and not desktops. The fact that Ghode never bothered to learn to type in Marathi or Hindi on a computer keyboard but is effortlessly doing so on his phone should be proof enough of the power of the smartphone for such users, and the business potential for companies.
OS Labs, which developed Indus OS as an Android-based mobile operating system to support Indian languages, is one of the Indian companies trying to address problems faced by non-English users. “It’s very cumbersome to change the language (setting) in Android. It takes seven clicks,” says cofounder and chief executive of OS Labs, Rakesh Deshmukh. Four of five smartphones in India run on Android, making it the preferred mobile operating system. He says that when someone who is not comfortable in English buys his first smartphone, the retailer usually sets up the phone, often selecting English as the default language. “Even if I have chosen Hindi, messages from my telecom operator or Aadhaar confirmation messages are in English. On our phones, messages can be translated from English with a swipe,” adds the civil engineering graduate from IIT-Bombay, who founded Indus in 2014. The company has raised $13 million in funding from Omidyar Network, JSW Ventures and Ventureast, another testimonial to the potential this space offers.
Rise of the Apps
The other big problem for first-time users is the requirement of an email address to sign in for all the functionalities of Android, including its apps on Google Play Store. Indus OS, which supports 22 languages, took care of this challenge by ensuring its own app store, the AppBazaar, does not require an email address for downloads. The store has 4,00,000 apps. Indus OS phones also have Google Play.
Indus offers word prediction in all the languages it support, which makes typing easier. Indus OS is available on smartphones made by eight low-cost phone makers, including Micromax, Intex and Karbonn, and the devices are priced below ₹10,000.
A look at the numbers on language and smartphone penetration validates the rise of this segment. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India, conducted between 2010 and 2013 as a non-government initiative, identified 780 languages and said there could be another 100. According to the 2001 Census (2011 data has not been released yet), India had 122 languages with at least 10,000 speakers each. Of these, the Constitution lists 22 as official languages. Hindi is the most spoken, followed by Bengali and Telugu. Now for the business numbers: India had nearly 300 million smartphone users in 2017, and the number is expected to cross 440 million by 2022. Communication, social media and entertainment account for two-thirds of the time Indians spend on apps, according to a study of over 3,00,000 Indus users. Understandably, these categories, along with news, are seeing increasing support for more Indian languages.
In short, technology companies cannot rely on English alone anymore. For instance, WhatsApp, with 200 million monthly active users in India, allows Android users in the country to change the language from within the app. WhatsApp, the country’s most used app, also supports 11 Indian languages. Facebook, the second most used app in India in 2017, supports 13 local languages. Facebook owns WhatsApp.
The dominance of these global giants apart, Indian entrepreneurs are trying to get a piece of the pie. They are attracting smartphone users with apps designed to be used in local languages. ShareChat, founded by Farid Ahsan, Bhanu Singh and Ankush Sachdeva, is one such app. It lets you choose from 10 languages and 27 dialects, and allows you to follow users you like. Banking on the popularity of WhatsApp, ShareChat lets users share photos and videos on WhatsApp.
“The user base that has come online in the past three years has an inherent apprehension about adopting something not available colloquially,” says Ahsan. Every day, half a million posts are created on ShareChat and these are shared 8-9 million times on WhatsApp. ShareChat has 3.5 million daily active users. Initially, there is a bias toward generic content such as jokes and good morning messages, which are forwarded on WhatsApp, Ahsan says. But over time, he adds, users gravitate toward niche content such as recipes and short stories, and also news and opinion.
Dev Khare, managing director at Lightspeed India Partners, an investor in Share-Chat, says the company’s cost of content creation and distribution is zero, which allows it to explore various revenue models.
ShareChat is also focusing on getting production houses to create original shows exclusively for the platform, based on the response to Ishq Mohalla, a Hindi series. Video streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and ALTBalaji are also reaching out to the expanding smartphone user base with original content in multiple languages, and by pricing their subscriptions competitively.
In 2016, video streaming accounted for half the mobile internet usage in India, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. By 2021, this will reach 75%. This will be a natural outcome of mobile data becoming cheaper, especially after Reliance Jio’s 4G data plans forced other telecom operators, too, to cut costs.
Besides communication, entertainment and social media websites and apps, news and other digital content like blogs have the most Indian-language internet users across categories, according to the KPMG-Google report. These are the segments DailyHunt, a news aggregator, and Pratilipi, a self-publishing platform, are betting on.
Pratilipi, which has raised more than $5 million from investors, including Omidyar and Times Internet, has 1,65,000 articles in eight languages. A third of these are in Hindi. “I believe everyone should have equal access and equal opportunity, and language should not be a barrier,” says cofounder and CEO Ranjeet Pratap Singh. More than two-thirds of local-language users trust digital content in their languages to be more reliable than those in English. “The more local-language content you make available, the more comfortable people will be using the internet,” Roopa Kudva, partner, Omidyar Network, told ET Magazine last month.
Tamil has the highest internet adoption, at 42%, among the eight major languages analysed in the KPMG-Google report, followed by Hindi and Kannada. Sayee Priyadarshini, a writer on Pratilipi, says though she has been writing in English for over two years, she had difficulty writing in Tamil on digital platforms due to lack of support for some fonts. She joined Pratilipi a year-and-a-half ago and has since written 15 short stories and essays in Tamil and has over 400 followers. She was able to do this because of the platform’s support for vernacular content.
Tech giants like Google and Microsoft are also paying attention to the Indian-language segment. Google Search is available in nine languages and Google Translate in three more. In August, Google added eight Indian languages, apart from Hindi, to its voicesearch feature.
Microsoft is also catching up. “We have leveraged the power of artificial intelligence and deep neural networks to improve realtime language translation from English to Hindi, Bengali, and Tamil across any website,” says Sunder Srinivasan, general manager, artificial intelligence (AI) and research, Microsoft India. “Using Bing.com, one can translate from English into these three Indian languages and vice versa on any mobile device using any browser.”
Swiftkey, the iOS and Android keyboard app Microsoft acquired in February 2016, offers predictive texting in 24 Indian languages. Microsoft has made email addresses available in 15 Indian languages. Microsoft, in fact, had two decades ago started an initiative called Project Bhasha to promote computing in the vernacular.
Srinivasan says developing products for multiple Indian languages is not easy, as most major languages belong to the Dravidian and Aryan language families, which are complex to translate to. “Customising and training technology involves putting in massive amounts of high-quality data to execute translations. For accurate translations, the system demands millions of parallel sentences in each language pair, in all permutations and combinations.”
Google did not respond to emailed queries on what it plans to do in this segment.
Indian-language users are comfortable with social media and communication apps but will take time to get used to services such as ecommerce. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of local-language users accessing etailing portals and apps is expected to quadruple to 165 million. But these people may not buy because of a platform challenge. “The payments interface in online shopping is one of the causes of friction for non-English users,” says Sreedhar Prasad, head of internet business at KPMG India. The ecosystem around ecommerce and online services — payments, delivery and feedback mechanism — needs to be Indian-language-friendly for the mass market to transact online, he adds.
Globally, the dominance of English as the language of the internet has started fading. In the mid-1990s, four-fifths of online content was in English and it has since fallen to just half of the total. English users account for just a fourth of the internet user base. It, therefore, makes business sense for technology companies to become pan-Indian, linguistically.