19 per cent of the world's population is online. Everyone, more or less, agrees that as and when the Internet grows to cover more people, it will have to speak in different languages. And this applies especially to a country like India. That said, while there's considerable noise in the regional language space in India, there are a fair share of sceptics, too.
Sure, there are thousands of blogs in languages such as Hindi and Tamil and even social media sites like Orkut now have regional languages. However, the reality is that only about three million people read online content in vernacular languages, according to Internet metrics firm JuxtConsult.
The regional flavours
Let's start with blogs. Shashi Singh, co-founder of PodBharti, an Indian podcast or online audio feed, is a believer. Singh voices his opinion on contemporary social issues through his Hindi language blog, mumbaiblogs.lokmanch.com, which he claims receives 3,000 page views a month. "Hindi blogs are growing very fast. There are over 1,000 bloggers who write in Hindi, but this figure was limited to 50 three years back," says Singh.
Vignesh Annamalai who writes Dhandora, a Tamil blog, that on an average gets 3,000 visitors a month, agrees, "Tamil blogging has a very good reach and NRIs form a large chunk of Tamil blog readers. There are more than 2,000 blogs in Tamil itself."
Apart from bloggers, online portals are also creating local language platforms. Webdunia.com, which recently opened up to readers in nine Indian languages, is in the process of launching a blog section in nine languages by the end of October. Pankaj Jain, president and COO, Webdunia, says, "The blog feature on Webdunia will have features of community building and we will launch it on an ad-based model on November 1. Currently, more than a million pages (on the Net) are published in Hindi from the UGC segment. Hindi is by far the most popular language, but other languages are picking up, too." Webdunia, which receives 60 million page views a month, provides local language content to Yahoo! and MSN and is also working with Google by supplementing regional content to the Google News service.
Google's Blogspot now has transliteration tools to convert English text into Hindi. Google has launched a virtual Hindi keyboard recently to make it easier to type in Hindi. "The market in India is changing rapidly. More people are coming online as the infrastructure for growth quickly expands. One challenge facing the Indian market is the creation and consumption of locally relevant content," says Vinay Goel, head of products, Google India.
Social media sites are also gearing up to explore the regional language content space in India. Indyarocks.com is planning to foray into regional social networking. Apart from sending messages online and on mobile, the site is also planning regional language blogs. Orkut has added an interface to help its members socialise in regional languages such as Hindi and Marathi.
When T stands for Transliteration
Transliteration tools, which automatically translate from English to another language, are easy to use and are getting more popular for typing and expressing oneself on the Net as compared to physical keyboards with vernacular characters, which require extra investment and are still being experimented with. On-screen keyboards do not come at a cost, but take some getting used to.
IM Swaminathan, director, communications and community products, Yahoo! India, says, "For on-screen keyboards, it's difficult to type what one wants as one has to choose the letters and it becomes a very slow process. Transliteration is better, as it's easiest and popular, but a long-term solution can only come through keyboard penetration. Transliteration tools are a short-term solution for regional, which has a lot of potential. PC and connectivity too are a challenge".
Yahoo!'s vernacular messenger tool, IndiChat, which is used as a default tool by all Indian users from Yahoo! Messenger, has close to 8 million users in India, according to comScore. It also uses phonetics for typing in Hindi, Tamil, etc., similar to a transliteration tool. Microsoft also has some plans in the social networking space. Krishna Prasad, executive producer, MSN India, says, "We are looking at the social networking space from a regional perspective and will announce our plans in December 2007."
"Fropper.com has plans to facilitate creation and exchange of user-generated content in the top six-eight regional languages in the coming six months, where it will provide tools to write and, thus, users will be able to interact fully," says Navin Mittal, business head, Fropper.com.
Are advertisers biting?
Prasad of MSN doesn't think so. He says, "Regional content is not going to revolutionise the Internet. It will take time to go from mainstream to regional. Today, there are language, interface and keyboard issues. From the current 40 million Internet user base, when we grow to 80 million, only then will regional prosper."
Kalyan Manyam, co-founder and CEO, Indyarocks.com, shares that opinion, "As the Net moves into small towns and villages, people will be encouraged to write in regional languages and when the audiences comes into the picture, the advertisers will be there."
Bloggers and members of social networking sites are pretty keen on making use of transliteration tools to express themselves in their own language on the Internet. The availability of these tools on popular platforms like Yahoo! and Google is doing its bit to promote regional user-generated content. On the other hand, industry experts believe it could take three-five years for the Internet to really speak in the languages people want to communicate in.