India now has around 200 million internet users. That means almost the entire English-speaking population of the country is already on the web. So, while India is expected to have 500 million internet users by 2017, a lot of this growth is dependent on our ability to eliminate the language barrier on the internet.
Since most of the internet growth in India is happening on mobile, you will see more and more devices adding regional language features over the coming months. Language access is already there, but it could become standard to offer support for multiple languages on all smartphones. It is not easy, but we are surely headed in that direction. Even Samsung, the largest smartphone player, now gives 14 regional languages pre-loaded in its flagship Samsung Galaxy Note 4 device.
There are also attempts being made to offer English access to those who are intimidated by the language. For instance, Firstouch, a Mumbai-based company founded by IIT graduates, has launched what they call the world’s first regional smartphone which can translate and transliterate text from Gujarati to English and vice-versa with just a swipe. Look at the possibilities of letting someone who does not know English converse with others in the language. Firstouch is headed for other languages in the near future.
But the bigger challenge is opening up the web to Indian languages. While you have been able to search in Indian languages for a few years now, anyone who has an option used to stay away from the ordeal. Now that Google has launched full voice search in Hindi, anyone can just tap the search button and ask Google to find an answer. And the Hindi voice search is throwing good results at the moment.
Hindi is too big an opportunity for Google to have overlooked. As a measure of the lack of content in local languages, Google India MD Rajan Anandan cites the example of Hindi pages on Wikipedia—strangely, there are just 22,000 pages catering to 400 million people who speak the language. This is why, along with the launch of Hindi voice search, Google also roped in an array of partners to usher in the Indian Language Internet Alliance to offer better content and technology for the Hindi-speaking population. The search giant is working on everything from Hindi language keyboards to fonts to give this effort the push it needs. Its partners, meanwhile, will provide regional language content that will act as the bait for the people to start searching and using the net in their native language.
So, what can languages offer to the growth of internet in India? According to a study done by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB International, regional language content availability can boost the growth of internet in India by 24%. A recent report by MindShift Interactive gives a good indication of where these numbers can come from. There is no Indian language in the top 10 languages used on Facebook even though we are the second country in terms of volume with over 110 million users. The report says Indians prefer to write using English alphabets, even though the content may be read out in Hindi. It adds that those who have tried to engage in regional languages on social media have done much better than those doing the same in India. Now, just imagine the kind of reach Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have if he starts engaging on social media in Indian languages too.
But if you ask me, the next big push will come from mobile and that too with the help of voice. If I can read the trends right, the written word might soon become inconsequential to a lot of first-time internet users. Yes, those who want to read content will need to be able to read text, but content consumption beyond text as well as the discovery and navigation of the same could happen purely by voice. For those shifting to their first smartphones from feature phones in the coming couple of years, the spoken word could well be the key to the internet.