Does India need its own vernacular internet?

India has 22 official languages, excluding English, each of which has millions of speakers.

88 percent of Indians can’t speak English (let alone read it), yet when you look at the languages on the internet in India, it’s only in English.

Hindi is used by less than 0.05 percent of websites on the internet, Bengali less than 0.018 percent, Tamil less than 0.007 percent, and so on. I hope you get the drift.

I have thrown a lot of numbers up till now, but the ultimate point is this:

99.9 percent of the internet is in languages 90 percent of Indians don’t understand. Is it possible to make a “Digital India” without changing the language of the internet?

Far from infinite, the internet seems to be only as big as the languages you speak. For a non-English Bengali, it is just a few government sites, news sites, apps, and movies on Youtube. However, a couple of new generation startups have started their local language versions.

I tried living in this pond for the last week and the experience has been highly frustrating. I changed my Android system setting to Hindi (as that’s the only other language I know), changed my Keyboard to Google Indic Keyboard, and tried avoiding all English content that was thrown at me.

Here are a few things I realized in this eye-opening exercise:

  • No SwiftKey for Hindi. This is the first thing I realized. (I also realized how much I’ve taken SwiftKey for granted in my life.)
  • Content creation in English is indeed 90 percent faster than in Hindi.
  • There’s no camera app for Hindi. I can’t use the filters and lenses on Instagram or Snapchat without bumping into English roadblocks
  • A lot of apps that I took for granted don’t exist for vernacular users. Zomato and Swiggy don’t exist in this small pond.
  • I can do google searches, but the results in Hindi are very limited, and no meaningful information comes out of them.

Let us now look at some of the most in-demand digital categories and how vernacular is faring in our most popular startups’ priorities.

Ecommerce

Snapdeal is the only ecommerce company that offers their platform in multiple languages. Earlier this year, they launched their multi-lingual mobile web interface in 12 languages. However, their mobile app and desktop website are still only in English.

Neither Flipkart nor Amazon offers multi-lingual support at the moment. Even companies in the long tail of commerce such as Shopclues and Craftsvilla are currently only available in English.

Paytm does allow for multi-lingual support upon changing the language of the phone but only for certain sections of the website.

Paytm only allows language changes for certain sections.

Travel and transport

In the cab hailing space, while Ola doesn’t support multiple languages, Uber does change its interface based on mobile OS setting (Android in my case).

In the travel space, both Makemytrip and ixigo have their train apps in multiple languages. However, both their main apps are still only in English. I couldn’t find any other travel app which supported any Indian language. Even IRCTC’s official mobile app didn’t. (Their website does support Hindi though.)

Leisure and entertainment

This is a category in which vernacular users do have some relief, not because of any Indian startup, but because of two apps: Whatsapp and Facebook.

Whatsapp is available in about 10 Indian languages; it changes depending on the language of your phone. (It also has a crowdsourcing platform for its language translations.) Facebook, similarly, changes languages depending on your phone and is available in 12 regional languages.

Apart from these two, back home, Bookmyshow offers support for five Indian languages.

Very recently, apps like Sharechat and Pratilipi are trying to tap the same market, but there’s yet to be a verdict on these apps.

News

This is probably the only category where certain standalone players have made it big (or at least seem to). While Facebook and Whatsapp do tend to provide the daily dose of content, more organized news apps like DailyHunt and UC News are also getting a lot of love from vernacular users (both sites with more than 10 million downloads on PlayStore).

Very recently, InShorts has also started with Hindi news. Most of the offline newspaper companies also have vernacular websites which get millions of hits themselves.

Of all the segments, news seems like the only segment where the needs of vernacular users haven’t been ignored completely — although there’s still a lot to yearn for.

Games

Candy Crush and Subway Surfers seem to have the same addictive effect on vernacular users as on English users. There have also been a few other games made specifically for Indian tastes like variants of Teen Patti and Chhota Bheem but the vernacular aspect is still missing.

While vernacular users still get a steady supply of casual games, there is virtually no serious or strategy-type games in the market for them.

Challenges

There is a multitude of challenges which this digital language divide possesses; the opinions of Vernacular users are not expressed on the internet. Digital Language Death researcher Andras Kornai claims that 95 percent of all languages in use today will never gain traction online. According to him, it is a real danger that new users, influenced by the volume of content in dominant languages, will abandon their mother tongues online. This seems to be happening to a lot of vernacular users already.

In 2011, the UN declared access to the internet as a basic human right. However, it seems like it is only dominated by a certain elite. On the internet, dominant languages are amplified and end up largely speaking for those with less powerful voices.

But is it possible to bridge this digital language divide? There are quite a few arguments against it.

Bi-lingual users, who can understand English partially, will always prefer the internet in English because of its vast reach.

However, China has a lot of platforms specifically built for Mandarin. They have been able to make their own versions of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube primarily because less than 1 percent of their population speaks English (this number stands at more than 10 percent in India). Because many Indians aspire to speak English, it is virtually impossible to create separate vernacular platforms.

Another argument on this is that vernacular consumers are not monetizable. Very recently, Mohit Bhatnagar of Sequoia Capital put forward excellent data points countering this myth.

It is clear that advertisers have found local language consumers to be a better TG in the offline space (TV, films, and newspapers).

While the share of local language on advertising spend is 86 percent for TV, 86 percent for films, and 64 percent for newspapers, it is only 5 percent on digital.

Opportunities

In a recent talk, Kevin Bharti Mittal pointed out that while media talks about hundreds of millions of mobile internet users in India, in fact, we have no more than 90 million.

With data becoming cheaper, many proclaim that new users will come on board. I think it will be virtually impossible for them to do this unless full-fledged, self-serving native language apps are provided. Technology and mobile apps will always remain an alien concept to them until it becomes something they understand.

DoT has already made it mandatory to have local language support in smartphones from July 2017 onward. Companies like Google (with its Indian Language Internet Alliance) are paving the way by making Indic Keyboard, local language fonts, and Unicode standard to provide the base for content creation and discovery.

Here are a few ideas that come to mind:

Needs

Improve business productivity: There is a pent-up demand for bridging the regional language information asymmetry in agriculture and farming. Millions of Whatsapp communities also point towards a need for organized channels for promoting trade in vernacular.

Banking and payment services: The success of MFIs in not just with rural but urban consumers as well. This clearly shows the potential and demand for banking solutions. Current strides towards a cashless economy provide the perfect launchpad for the next wave for banking and payment solutions to be in vernacular. Last mile banking solutions are also set to be disrupted.

Employment: English has become almost a prerequisite for employability in India. The National Skill Development Council has recognized it as an essential skill to complement over half of 21 core skills. A plethora of opportunities lie in vocational training, employee training, and employment; the same portals that brought jobs to English speakers over the last two decades won’t suffice the unique needs of this section.

Education: Given the digital divide and the aspirational nature of English, learning this language has become a no-brainer opportunity. While Indian English users have multiple online platforms, local language learners have to rely on just physical books for their learning needs. The waves of personalization and interactivity disrupting education are yet to reach regional language learners.

Wants

Entertainment

Various content players have started creating video content in Hindi, but not so much for other regional languages.

Ecommerce

  1. Vernacular reviews-based, social, and curated shopping networks, which aggregate all ecommerce products and their reviews.
  2. Audio/video based assisted ecommerce

Content Creation

  1. Camera apps that allow users to associate their favorite film/TV content to their images/videos. Dubsmash does allow for something similar with videos but much more innovations seem possible.
  2. Keyboards that allow for easier Indian language input. Initiatives like IIT Bombay IDC’s Swarachakra seem to be a step in this direction.

All I’ve mentioned above could become opportunities for new-age startups to tap. It is time we saw platforms built for Indian languages.

If typing in Hindi is harder, it is time we make it 100 times easier by using image, audio, or video to communicate (or make an easier keyboard itself). If no good Bengali fonts exist, let’s make them. If no Telugu camera apps exist, let’s make one which puts global players to shame.

Timing can’t be better than this. Smartphone sales are at all time highs and data prices are getting cheaper by the day. We literally are left with no excuses.

The facts and opinions mentioned above hold true as of December 13, 2016.



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