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@ IGF: “Let Us Not Assume That Users Want Indian Languages”; PC Era Ended; Multilingual Standards, Voice Based Internet

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Internet Governance Forum Hyderabad

Updated Below

At the Internet Governance Forum being held in Hyderabad, Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO of Rediff.com said that there is no evidence from the last ten years of the Internet business that users want Indian languages. Rediff has email in 11 languages, and 99% of the users prefer to use email in English. One of the issues is that “practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English.” Therefore “Let us not assume that users want Indian languages.” He mentioned that Nokia has experimented with Indic language keyboards, and pointed out Eterno’s transliteration app which allows the usage of latin characters for messaging in Indic languages.

During the Q&A, Ram Mohan from the audience put forth a significant point on the requirement of multilingual standards – for the creation of a common set of semantics and terminologies, and the need for a framework and a common structure for script and language-based solutions. “We’re talking about a problem that begins at the core of the Internet, at the domain name system, and goes all the way to Internet navigation. Multilingualism is often confused with Internationalized Domain Names. One is not the same as the other.”

He suggested that a standard or a shared model for the adoption of scripts and languages online be created. “…people think languages, but computers work with scripts. And we need to find some common way to bridge that gap. Otherwise, I think we run a real risk of having simply scripts depicted online and not having languages. Some languages may completely miss this transition from an oral world to a digital computer-based world.”


Responding to him Balakrishnan said that one may sit in a committee and madate people to do what you want, but they will do things which are more convenient to them. Which is why TCP/IP won over the X400. “You find all this energy is being spent on local scripts as URLs for domain names, I encourage you to think about it at all.” 

Balakrishnan doesn’t believe that the Internet is about content – most young people are using the Internet to send messages, download music, view pictures or videos. None of this is particularly language related, and virtually 90% of the content is not text based. He believes that the PC era ended last year, and the future of access is mobile, but it wont be text based mobile

“People are frantically working to master the voice-to-text conversion piece, not because we want to convert it for any other reason but for the fact that most of the text, most of the processing software has historically been built around text processing, indexing methods, TDIDF calculations and so on. So the big thing, the really big thing over the next five years – whoever gets a breakthrough on a voice-based Internet where you can speak into it and hear things back, that is a big price. If that happens, you will find all your conferences have been wasted.”

“Voice-based Internet is where the future lies. And if national entities have to be pushed to do anything, it’s to make sure you make the voice-to-text recognition system accurate. At the moment in India we are not getting results more than 70% accuracy. If you can use the brains and get it to 95%, I think that is fantastic. That will solve all our problems.”

Update: BG Mahesh, CEO of OneIndia, has commented on his blog, differentiating between reading and writing content, saying that the time has not arrived for the usage of Indian language  in email. Some data:

During the initial years about 80-90% of our language traffic was from outside India (NRIs). Post 2006, 60% of our language traffic is from India (I am averaging across all languages). The readership in India has grown because of the growth in Internet user base (40m or 60m – whatever).

Note: Do check our Indic Language section.

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  • It is odd that Ajit B should mistake local language interface on his email product with local language internet.

    It is a simple, basic difference: content is a different beast compared to the interface.

  • Kumar

    A very shocking comment from Rediff. If languages is not going to be used why did Rediff invest in a language/sms technology company?

  • I find this amusing, coming from a man who put so many of his eggs in the Indic language basket. He’s right, though: the Indian Internet user is far more comfortable with English than we give him credit for. Indic languages are an investment in the future of the medium, and a healthy one, IMO.

    The multimedia Internet is many years away from being a reality in India. The problem is bandwidth and proliferation of broadband connectivity. The mobile Web isn’t growing in leaps and bounds, either. The bulk of the WAP traffic comes from operator portals, which hardly translates into anything of value for the other content providers. In the end, the Internet is about content, regardless of the medium in which it is produced or in which it is consumed.

    As for the voice-based Internet, let’s get the Turing Test problem solved first, shall we? Unless he means VoIP, in which case he’s way behind the times already!

  • The reality is End users go for massive adoption of service only after it reaches a tipping point among the early adopters.

    Take TV channels in local languages for instance… We were all happy with DD1(predominantly Hindi) and a lot little media in local languages untill the Cable TV revolution happened…

    So much so that you see even channels like Discovery,Animal Planet and others having local language versions being beamed…
    (Thenumbers of viewers just skyrocketed once these channles started dubbing their English only content to vernacular Indian Languages!!)

    I believe in India as well…there is a such an opportunity… There are potentially millions who could benefit from the internet only if they could access valuable content/media in the language they are most comfortable in…

    But as long as the industry keeps writing them off,instead being content with the English speaking Interent users in India(which agreed is a sizeable number!!) our internet penetration will languish around similar numbers for many years to come…

    Its a egg and chicken problem…

    The users wont come untill they have it in their language…

    And the industry wouldnt want to invest in local language based internet solutions unless there are enough users who would use it!!

    Why there is no web equivalent of a Dainik Jagran or an Eenaadu or a Sun TV on the Internet is beyond my comprehension…

  • Upendra

    There are reasonable amount of language portals out there. Our portal http://www.oneindia.in is one such.

    I have been in this language space in 2000 and we have seen good growth in this space. There is always a bottle neck of internet penetration but that is beyond anyone’s control.



  • Sameer

    Well Well !!

    Its too too early to predict the future of the Indian Languages on the net when only a fraction on Indians are online, and that too based on an analysis of just “Email Users/Usage”, doesn’t seem logical.

    How can anyone link Email Usage with Content readership :))

    India is yet to come online. India has seen growth in Internet during the last 1.5 years majorly. If you analyze from last 10 years obviously the numbers will be down.

    Last but not the least, take out the readership numbers of Indian language content in Newspapers,Magazines etc. Lingual content is top on the charts in every state.

  • vijay

    May be true current most of internet users in India are comfortable with English language; but like rest of world if internet becomes available to major population; then Indian languages will be the key as our English population still is less than 100 million.

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  • MoByte

    I think too much time is spent talking about penetration and very little on actual satisfaction (pun unintended).

    Here are some facts, and Nikhil you should spend time deep diving on these numbers.

    There are 250 Million households in India with about 5 people per household.

    50Mln of these are extreme poor and hence niether consume phone or internet or products and services of any consequence.

    Of the balance 200M, 90 Mln have no TV 40 Mln have terristrial TV and 70Mln have cable/DTH access.

    Now, 70 Mln of the cable households make up a population of 350Mln people. Of these 350Mln, 35Mln access internet in some form, ie a penetration of 10%.

    However, rarely do all 5 members in a house access the internet so if we assume 2 people per household access the internet, you suddenly see that almost 25% of the C&S households in India are also internet households. The question is can a marketer continue to ignore this now?

    Lets take mobile penetration now…

    350Mln subscribers and 200Mln households (again ignoring the extreme poor for the time being).

    To get to a 350Mln number, lets do some maths:

    70Mln C&S homes each with 3 Mobiles = 210Mln Subs
    40Mln Terristrial homes with 2 mobiles – 80Mln
    90 Mln No TV households = balance 60Mln

    Gets you to a number of 350Mln.

    So effectively, 1 in 4 C&S households has access to the internet and has atleast 3 mobile phone subscribers in it..

    The question I have is, its not about language or anything else.. its about brands taking their presence on the net seriously.

    Search Wiki for the biggest brands in India and see how they fail.

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  • “Fundamentally, the Internet is not about content.”…

    At a time when Indian language newspapers are expanding their reach by launching their websites, Mr. Balakrishanan said last week that consumers don’t want language content on the net. Then he launches communication facility in 22 Indian languages. No clue of what’s really happening on the net, in the world?

    “When we sit around in meetings like this…”
    – this is where his ignorance stems from.

    “ So virtually 90% of the content is text free… “

    – Maybe on Rediff, but on the net? .. Mr. Balakrishan needs to learn counting again or get his numbers from an authentic source.

  • I am in agreement with Ajit Balakrishnan regarding regional languages. The Aaj Tak website recieves less eyeballs compared to Ibnlive or NDTV.

    The people commenting negatively have themselves replied in English which answers itself.

    Nokia has failed in trying to corner the rural market with this idea.

    Launching in 22 regional language is a strategy that they are available and cover an audience, however small, from competition and would make excellent sales pitch.

    Like print advertisements in regional languages most of the text is in English

  • @ Kaiser Faruqi

    * “Economic Times Launches Gujarati Website”.- Maybe they don’t have business sense? Or, maybe they have better business sense than those who believe that the Indian language content is not wanted on the net?

    * If the discussion is in particular language, the answer, obviously should be in the same language. Being multilingual is better for brain development than being language fanatic.

    * Did Nokia fail because of technical reasons or because of linguistic reasons?
    * There are lots of “small audiences”- if they are not wanted on the net, why go after them? Doesn’t make “excellent sales pitch”, does it?
    * Ever saw google ads in Indian languages? They must have put some thought behind it?

    This is not a debate between “English” and “Other Indian language” or even, what is the current scenario in the Indian internet space.

    At least for me, it’s about what change we might see in the coming years.

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  • rehman

    I tend to agree with Mr. Ajit Balakrishnan, he always makes a lot of sense at the forums but what I find hard to understand is that why does he fails to implement all his wisdom and understanding on his own site.
    He has constantly contradicted himself in his speeches and action. In one of his earlier interviews he had stated that Indic language will be a big driver and they are focusing on it big time…
    and all his investments have been in technology to support Indic language…
    there is something missing here..either he is misguiding the public..or just playing it safe…as he is not too sure of what the consumers really want..only time will tell.

  • […]Obviously, Ajit Balakrishnan has missed the point. Mahesh does make some interesting comments but I find his ideas unconvincing…

    The internet is not an intellectual event. Its a mass phenomenon. You have to design for the masses[…]

  • Farah

    Ajit needs to be fired. Maybe he can go live in England.