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Bridging the Vernacular Gap

A clutch of companies is racing to build an Indian language Internet to meet the growing demand for non-English content from web users.
twitter-logo Goutam Das        Print Edition: March 15, 2015
Rakesh Deshmukh co-founded MoFirst Solutions
Rakesh Deshmukh co-founded MoFirst Solutions, which developed a Gujarati phone brand, Firstouch. The Mumbai company is now licencing its operating system to other phone makers. (Photo: Vivan Mehra)

Never mind the recent diktat of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas, the odds appear to be heavily stacked against Indian languages - at least on the Internet.

Sample this: the Sanskrit Wikipedia has 11,000 articles; the German Wikipedia 1.79 million. The statistics for Hindi, one of the world's most common languages with more than 422 million speakers, are no better - there are only 22,000 Wiki pages. Rajan Anandan, Managing Director, Google India, recently wrote in a Business Today column that even Estonia, a small European country with a population of just 1.5 million, has more Wiki entries at 55,000 pages. No Indian language, in fact, finds a place in the top 10 global languages used on the Internet.

All this may change in the next few years as companies, both start-ups and established giants such as Google, race to build the Indian language Internet. Google, in November, launched the Indian Language Internet Alliance, a group of 19 content and technology companies, to "accelerate building of Indic language content" online. And roughly 20 start-ups are working on content discovery, localising content, Indian language keyboards, fonts, user interfaces and speech recognition, according to Virendra Gupta, Founder of Bangalore-based Ver Se Innovation, which runs a local language news and e-book app.

What explains the need for web content in local languages is the growing number of Internet users in the country and the saturation of English-speaking population already online. India has about 300 million Internet users. This includes almost the entire English-speaking population of 198 million, according to Google. The number of web users is estimated to touch 500 million by 2017. But that can happen only if Indians can access the Internet in their local languages.

Nobody, however, has an estimate for the size of the market for Indian language Internet or its potential. According to market research firm Common Sense Advisory, the global market for outsourced language services and technology likely surpassed $37.19 billion in 2014. This is estimated to increase to $47 billion by 2018. Gupta of Ver Se Innovation says if the Indian language book publishing industry moves online, it can create a digital opportunity worth nearly $7 billion for both the content providers and technology players.

Anticipating rapid growth, venture capital money has already started flowing in. In September last year, Ver Se Innovation raised $20 million in Series B funding led by Sequoia Capital, and existing investors Matrix Partners and Omidyar Network. In December 2013, Helion invested in LinguaNext Technologies, a start-up that "localises" enterprise apps such as SAP and Oracle by making them multi-lingual.

Clearly, building the Indian language Internet will have huge implications for content providers, e-commerce companies trying to penetrate smaller cities and towns, mobile-phone makers as well as telecom operators. For instance, most Indians will access the Internet on their smartphones, whose interface now needs to be in the language they can read. Smartphone sales have been rising, thanks to falling prices. According to market research firm IDC, smartphone shipments in India likely touched about 80 million in 2014 from 44 million the previous year. This makes India not just the fastest-growing smartphone market in Asia Pacific but also a battleground for innovation where several start-ups are developing technology that helps access Indian language content on the mobile phone.

Rakesh Kapoor, MD of Gurgaon-based Process Nine Technologies, works with mobile phone makers and e-commerce companies to localise the device interface and translate content from English to other languages. (Photo: Vivan Mehra)
Touch and Feel

It is 9.30 on a chilly December morning. A Starbucks outlet in Gurgaon's Cyber Hub is bustling with souls looking for a hot cuppa. In one corner sits Rakesh Deshmukh, wearing blue shirt and trousers with a blue and brown jacket. He takes out a white smartphone from his trousers pocket. "It is a four-inch device with a dual-core processor, four GB internal memory, 512 MB RAM," he blurts out. He also shows the mobile phone's packaging - the box has Gujarati characters and a sentence in English: "Patented swipe technology".

Deshmukh co-founded MoFirst Solutions, which developed a "regional" mobile phone brand, called Firstouch. Using the swipe technology, a user can write a text message, an instance message on WhatsApp or even an e-mail in Gujarati and swipe. The message gets delivered in English. Alternatively, messages received in English can be swiped to translate into Gujarati. Deshmukh reveals that his company also has a patent for matra prediction that helps users when they start typing in Gujarati. "We launched the phone in May 2014 in Gujarat on a pilot basis. It was priced at Rs 6,000 and we sold 5,000 phones," he says. Although the traction the phone got validated that regional language handsets will work, scaling up would have been an issue for a start-up in the business. The company, funded though angel investors, has now decided to license the operating system to other mobile phone makers. Besides Gujarati, the company is developing the operating system in five other languages.

Reverie, a five-year-old company in Bangalore, is more established with handset makers such as Micromax, Karbonn, Panasonic, Spice and Celkon. Arvind Pani, who co-founded the company with his brother Vivek, and is also its CEO, recently visited the customers in Delhi. "We are a language experience company," he says, after polishing off a burger at a McDonalds outlet in Noida. The company's platform can be embedded into a mobile phone and that would enable Indian language fonts, keypads with predictive input capability as well as transliteration. Reverie also has a phonebook app that can replicate the English phone book in 11 languages. The app came embedded in a Micromax phone and saw three million downloads in six months, Pani claims.

Indianising E-commerce

Reverie and other companies are also working to translate the content of e-commerce companies, largely in English today, as well as provide regional language search, among others. "We have launched a language-as-a-service platform. All our technologies are in the cloud. A dozen consumer Internet companies are evaluating it," says Pani. The company has revenues of Rs 8 crore to Rs 10 crore and expects to clock Rs 100 crore over the next three to four years. "There is interest from e-commerce companies, travel companies as well as app-based cab service companies," adds Pani, whose company has received funding from the US chip giant Qualcomm and angel investors.

Not far from MoFirst Solution's office in Gurgaon is the basement workplace of Process Nine Technologies. The company works with mobile phone makers such as Lava, besides e-commerce companies, to localise the device interface and translate content from English to other languages. "We have translated the product portfolio of Snapdeal into six languages," says Managing Director Rakesh Kapoor.

A Snapdeal spokesperson says 20.9 million web users in urban areas browse content in their regional language. In rural areas, nearly 64 per cent use the Internet in their local language. "We were the first online marketplace in the country to launch regional language versions of our site and these have got a tremendous response from our audiences. Currently, the site is available in English, Hindi and Tamil. Four new languages - Kannada, Telugu, Bengali and Marathi - will be added over the next few months," the spokesperson says.

Just like private companies, the government, too, is interested in converting its websites into Indian languages. Pune-based LinguaNext is helping many public sector banks make this transition. The company's products translate enterprise applications into many languages. "Government banks and PSUs want to implement customer-facing websites in regional languages urgently," says Jagdish Sahasrabudhe, CEO of LinguaNext. The company was founded in 2010 and counts State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank among its customers. "We are being asked to execute projects in a matter of months," he adds.

The Pani brothers founded Reverie fi ve years ago. The Bangalore company's platform enables Indian language fonts, keypads with predictive input capability, as well as transliteration on mobile devices (Photo: Nilotpal Baruah)
The Content Puzzle

While technology companies are working hard at getting the access and interface right - among established companies, Google is releasing a Hindi version of voice search - content companies and aggregators are busy building the content. Ver Se Innovation has been the talk of the town for a few months now. "We want to be the first point of Internet access in Indian languages," says Gupta, its founder. Newshunt, its news app, aggregates content in 13 languages from many publishers. "We have 17 million active users on Newshunt a month and 1.7 billion page views," he says, talking of demand for local news on the Internet.

Ver Se, in February 2014, launched a regional e-book app that has seen downloads of 10 million books so far. "We have both free and paid books. At times, we unbundle the book and sell it by chapters," says Gupta. The average price is between Rs 30 and Rs 40. Founded in 2007,the company appears to be one of the biggest companies in the sector by revenue. "We started as a value-added services (VAS) provider to mobile operators. We have revenues of $10 million a year, 40 to 50 per cent coming from VAS," says Gupta.

Among other companies in the content game is Webdunia and HinKhoj, a Jaipur-based company that runs a crowd-sourced Hindi dictionary app. "Fifty lakh people have downloaded the dictionary on Android," says Udai Singh, Founder of HinKhoj. While HinKhoj is not a commercial venture, Webdunia is. It is also one of the oldest in the business - it was launched in September 1999, barely a year after Google - and survived the dotcom crash. It was ahead of its times. By 2000, Webdunia had already created phonetic keyboards, multilingual chat and mail solutions, and even a search engine in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. However, it ran into the familiar barriers of Internet connection speeds and reach - there were no smartphones back then while PC penetration was poor. The company now runs content portals and apps in seven languages focused on "A, B, C, H and L" - astrology, Bollywood, cricket, health and lifestyle. All the portals combined generate eight million unique visitors a month, the company says.

While the content available in Indian languages on the web is hardly enough to satisfy the growing demand of Internet users, companies seem to have at least made a good beginning.

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