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Tuesday 23 December 2008

Of Indian Languages and the Internet

Nikhil Pahwa in a post on Medianama tells us:

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.

There has been interesting posts/comments on this by various bloggers, one in particular by BG Mahesh (Mahesh's post)

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

I think all of the posts and blogs I have read on this have not thought about the following:

1. Language is not important, Communication is
This might sound distasteful to language purists, but this is just the basics. Language does become important as an identity projector and for its political ramifications, but beyond that, for day-to-day life, its just a means of communication. In their daily life, people will use whatever language allows them to connect to the largest mass of people, or whatever is easy and available. As of now, its neither easy to read (rendering) or write (script complications in use of "matras") in comparison to English (which uses only letters for both consonants and vowels). One might argue that the Japanese script is complicated as well, but that argument falls short simply because India is more comfortable with English because of reasons I have outlined in point 2 below.

2. Its not just the Internet when it comes to Indian languages
The internet is just a reflection of the society we are. Indian languages are not in their prime in urban India (at least). The average child in North India no more says "ma" and "bapu" while addressing her/his mother and father - surprisingly uses "mummy" and "papa", for the two words that represent a child's closest relationships. Higher education is mostly in English. We don't have too many books for advanced studies written credibly in any Indian language like the Germans or the Japanese have.

3. People might be looking for different content and packaging when it comes to Indian languages
Till now effort has been made to provide Indian language alternatives to the applications that exist in English, as if people will adopt it because of some dying need. Most of these people who have created or pushed for these alternatives, may themselves have had no real need for the same, and have just contrived it to suit their intellectual pursuit or some archaic belief that other people across the often imagined "digital divide" need it - a condescending attitude if not ignorance. A little looking around (and I know I am still guessing it) might show that the solution lies elsewhere. Because of usage, vernacular languages might have their own content and packaging space in media, one that does have overlaps with English media, but also has its own niche - and the same is true for the internet. Some ideas to consider:

1. Blogs: A Tamil or a Bengali might blog about work-stuff in English, but would he blog poems in the same? Poems are about feelings and its not easy to blog in a language other than your mother tongue - after all it will end up being just a transliteration, mush like the way most Indians speak English - thinking in their mother tongue and then transliterating it into English. I am sure content like poems or lyrics or even native jokes would be blogged in an Indian language.

2. Social Networking: It would be so un-cool to network on Facebook in an Indian Language, simply because Indian languages have not grown fast enough to accommodate and now create college-slangs and fashionable yet simple words - the languages have stagnated and gone out of fashion. However, it might be very very cool to use Hinglish, which is a spoken combination of Hindi and English and has been made fashionable by the aspirational urban youth.

3. Mails: It would be a pain to write long mails in Hindi, for example, where getting the "matras" right would be so much difficult. On the other hand, if written in English, people can figure out words even if one makes a "tpyo".

4. Twitter: Now that is something one might want to write in an Indian language like Hindi, or Hinglish, or Telegu or Bengali for that matter. Micro-messaging wouldn't be so much of a pain, even if one had to use "matras" in Hindi, as was the case in mails. On the other hand it might be interesting to explore and tweet in different Indian languages and rediscover them.

The possibilities could be endless. But its important to keep it cool, simple and easy.

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

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Products are not just a collection of Features

Software products are not just created but also thought out and conceptualized as a collection of features. While this works for extending features on an existing large product, for the conceptualization of a new product, this is possibly the best way to lose your way.

The value of the whole is not always a sum total of its parts.

Let me use a familiar analogy. A house, for example, is not just a collection of rooms, or of its accessories. Each room by itself doesn't have the "value" to its occupants as the whole house has. This is because, beyond the collection of rooms, the house is also built around the social interaction of its occupants. The same collection of rooms, organized in 2 different ways based on 2 different social interactions, will provide a wholly different kind of "value" to their occupants. Similar is the case in software products.

I am a big advocate of the need to think and conceptualize a software product in terms of its social interactions. After all its the social interactions in a product that users of the product experience, and the features are only a means to achieve them. Many of the current range of Web 2.0 applications are actually based on a single social interaction. Many products, in fact, started from a single social interaction, but have since found expression in a wider range of social interactions as well.

Twitter for example, is a simple application that started off with a simple social interaction - "implicit asynchronous messaging" - you could "publish" your status to the stream and let people downstream know about it, without having to explicitly message people. This might have seemed initially to most people (including myself) as not such great stuff, but a little thought will tell you that this is akin to "micro-publishing". The possibilities of extending this social interaction to evolve into a whole genre of social interactions, as people "get it" is endless. Thinking of Twitter as only a feature couldn't have opened up these possibilities, as thinking of Twitter as a publishing-consuming social interaction does.

Of the current crop of Web 2.0 products, those that will survive and grow into the next big thing, will have successfully mapped the next generation of social interactions.

Each such social interaction may involve a single or a multiple set of features. Again, each such interaction may involve some of the features partially. So, those coming from the old world of product management might want to create a matrix/map that co-relates social interactions to features and this might be helpful for them in product development. However, the progress in product development still needs to be measured in terms of how much of the conceptualized social interaction has been achieved and what possibilities lie ahead.