Indic Language options

Mobile handsets in India will now have to support typing in English, Hindi and at least one additional Indian official language, as well reading in all 22 official Indian languages, the Bureau of Indian Standards has said, reports Livemint, quoting a statement. MediaNama wasn’t able to independently verify this development: there is no statement on BIS’ website.

MediaNama’s take

1. The right move: At the Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad in 2009, Rediff founder Ajit Balakrishnan had said that there is no evidence from the ten years before that date that users want Indian languages. Sometimes, you shouldn’t make decisions purely on the basis of evidence.

While we’re usually in favor of the market taking its own course, when it comes to Indic languages, there hasn’t been sufficient action from either the handset or the OS ecosystem, and the government needs to step in. We’ve been expecting mandating Indic languages for handsets for two years now, but this is better late than never. It’s essential for the growth of access to the Internet for handsets, which are their primary source of access to knowledge, to be available in their own language.

While mandating Hindi and one regional language is a start, this guidelines should be revised regularly to ensure that all official Indian languages are supported for typing. You won’t want part of the population of India to be left out merely because they can’t read or write one English, Hindi or a chosen language.

2. Historical Challenges: The important thing here is that the past few years have given us an opportunity which we didn’t have earlier: usage of language tools is independent of the telecom operators and (to some extent), the handset manufacturer. For context, in 2009, the challenge, as Nadeem Akhtar told us then, lay in the fact that telecom operator networks were unable to text messaging in Indic languages:

– Even if handset supported keyboards, Indic languages, before the 3GPP standard was established, meant that you couldn’t get more than 70 characters in an Indic language SMS, and telecom operators were forced to send Indic messages as picture messages, split across 2-3 messages, thus tripling the cost of messaging.
– Keyboard layouts, even if they supported Indic languages, varied from handset to handset, and new standards would take time to make it to the market. Then there was the question of device support: “…legacy devices will not be able to send using the new system, that conversion can be done on the network.”

3. The opportunity in smartphones: As we wrote in 2010, the opportunity in touch screen handsets is that operating systems can support Indic languages without having to deal with the pain of physical keyboards for each language.

4. Likely effects:
– Switch to smartphones: It could speed up the switch in India to smartphones (and featurephones), because they have that capability to use Indic languages using the operating system.
– Cost of phones: It could add significantly to the cost of non-smartphones, or just speed up their demise.
– Regulatory cost: How will this be enforced? This could add a regulatory and inspection charge for handset importers and manufactuers.
– Impact on low cost Chinese handsets? We wonder if the need to enabling Indic languages in smartphones will mean that only some low cost Chinese handsets can be exported to India. This guideline might impact dumping of handsets.

5. One last thing: The Livemint report also mentions that the guidelines, which haven’t yet been made public, also mandate that the mobiles need to have a minimum 4MB of memory, of which 2MB is meant to be reserved for Indic language support. That’s a remarkably odd requirement, and we don’t think the BIS should be allocating memory allocation.