Dec 18 2008

Rediff CEO Ajit Balakrishnan at Internet Governance Forum: Local Languages Will Not Drive the Next Billion nternet Users

by at 11:10 pm

At the Internet Governance Forum at Hyderabad, during a panel on Reaching the Next Billion, Rediff CEO Ajit Balakrishnan made some interesting comments (via Nikhil Pahwa) —

If the world is looking to increase Internet users by a billion, India has to contribute at least 250 million… India’s user base right now is roughly 40 million. So it’s a mega challenge to take it from where we are now at 40 million to get to 250 million.

We have had e-mail operating in 11 languages, but virtually 99% of users prefer to use it in English. In India, there is a set of issues, because practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English. English is an aspirational language. Consequently, there is very little interest in accessing the Internet in any other language than that.

In Indian languages… we have a large number of them, 16 to 17 major ones. So the market for any of these things is highly fragmented. The single biggest one, Hindi, is probably no more than 30% of the population… But let us not assume that users want Indian languages. There is no evidence so far the last ten years in the business.

If the goal is to add another billion users to the world, this is not going to help you too much. It will probably add another 20 million or 15 million.

Fundamentally, the Internet is not about content. When we sit around in meetings like this, we think that most people read weighty tomes published by the U.N. and others. In fact what they do, mostly young people are on the Internet and what they do is they send messages, brief messages to each other, or post messages on social networking sites or download music or enjoy pictures or video clips. None of this is really particularly language related. Most of the navigational levels have to be in languages. So virtually 90% of the content is text free if you look deeply enough.

And one final thing, if you haven’t heard about it, the PC era just ended in the last year and the future of access is mobile. But it’s again not going to be text-based mobile. That’s another message I want to bring to you from the trenches of the Internet world.

People are frantically working to master the voice-to-text conversion piece… (but) the big thing (in) the next five years… (will be) a breakthrough on a voice-based Internet where you can speak into it and hear things back.

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.

These comments are quite controversial and have attracted several interesting reactions —

It is wrong to assume Indian languages are not a wanted commodity just because a particular language product (in this case, the language support on Rediffmail) hasn’t done well. In my opinion the time has not arrived for the usage of Indian language in email.

Oneindia.in has been publishing language content since April 2000. (Our) users wanted to ‘read’ our content and very few wanted to write in the language. Most of our feedback mails were in English (pre-2006). These days most of the comments on our site and feedback emails are in the language.

Everyone talks about UGC (user generated content). Many feel just because UGC in language is not as big as English (as of now) they have inferred language is not wanted on the net. Wrong. Language blogs are popular these days and it is the best example of UGC. (BG Mahesh, CEO of OneIndia)

I think that the average urban user would be keen on using English (he’s either comfortable with it, or aspires to be). Even with increased penetration into rural areas, the mindset that ‘English is the path to advancement’, which I have seen around me a lot, might make English a preferred language, more than the regularly spoken one. Also, unlike print, and television, which are more passive media (read/ remote click), the net is a more active medium, because it requires some navigation for the user to make full use of it. (links/downloads etc) I think its fair to assume that the width and depth of content available in English will always be more than that of other languages. Does that mean that there is no market for language? There is a market, but I doubt that it will ever explode or be the driver for growth or be the major beneficiary of the internet’s rural penetration (when that happens). I have a feeling that the catch 22 situation will last – not enough users to warrant content and not enough content to warrant usage. (Manu Prasad)

What worries me is that if people who wield a great deal of influence over Internet usage practices in India, such as Balakrishnan, don’t persevere and try to push local language emailing with the huge new crop of users India adds annually, then the presence of Indian writing technologies on the Net will dwindle before they are given a real chance to take off. (Usree Bhattacharya)

I have always believed that language is going to be one of the three dimensions of differentiation for Indian social networking sites — language (English vs. vernacular), mode of access (Internet vs. mobile) and social dynamics (global vs. Indian) —

According to NRS 2006, the readership of English language newspaper is only 26 mn, less than 10% of the overall readership of newspapers in India. Given that English is the predominant language on Internet in India, is it any surprise that English language newspaper readership in India and Internet usage in India are in the same ballpark? Also, if you flip the numbers, vernacular language newspaper readership in India is ten times higher than English language readership in India. It’s probably reasonable to project that, if vernacular language Internet was to become popular in India, Internet usage in India will potentially increase tenfold.

I also believe that language and access will also be the key drivers for internet growth in India, in general. There is widespread consensus in India on the mobile part, but not on the language part, but I think that will change in the next five years.

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Sep 05 2008

Will Online Video Lead to Increased Fragmentation of Online Content Into Languages?

by at 1:25 pm

This post is in response to Ben’s comment on my earlier post on social media usage in BRIC countries

But if a large demographic increase from developing nations is due, we will encounter more and more problems with translation; while a textual blog entry could be mechanically translated, video would have to be transcribed, and that is not likely to happen. Will this lead to standardization of publishing language, or increased awareness of online regionalism?

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