Here's some good news for Hotmail users. If you want to email your friend in an Indian language like Hindi or Tamil which you are more familiar with than English, you will be able to do so - soon enough.
Microsoft, of course, won't say when it will start the service. However, at least for the time being MSN - the popular portal it runs - will be launched in both Hindi as well as Tamil by end April.
Says Krishna Prasad, head programming, MSN India: "Eighty per cent of the literate in India do not understand English, so moving into regional languages is inevitable."
Prasad is creating special content for the rural audiences - which include primers on using the PC, lessons for using the Net - and hopes to generate fresh content through the support of the user community.
Indore-based Webdunia.com - the country's largest Hindi portal - gets over 200 million page hits a month (which also includes its other language portals like Tamil, and Malaylam). And its email service e-patra, available in 11 languages, has been a raging success with over 1.6 million registered users.
Buoyed by its recent success it is now planning to double its traffic to the portals this year. And, of course, its revenues too.
Matrimonial portal, Jeevanshathi.com - which launched its Hindi version just a month ago - is elated with the response it's getting.
Says a beaming Sanjeev Bikchandani, CEO and co-founder of the matrimonial portal: "About eight per cent of the users who come to the English portal are going to our Hindi channel, without any promotions. We never expected this kind of a response."
These are just cases in point. English might be the "lingua franca" for Indian portals and its users. But times are surely changing. We suddenly have a bevy of Indian companies taking the first steps to test the waters by setting up Indian language portals.
Surely it is still a market in its infancy - industry estimates that out of 20 billion pages globally on the Net, there are only one million Hindi pages (Tamil would have half-a-million).
Look at it from another plane, over 90 per cent of Indian portals are in English. A recent study shows that the top search engines together (includes Google and AOL, MSN and Yahoo) were able to identify over two lakh Hindi website links on the portal bbc.co.uk/Hindi - again reflecting the limited nature of Hindi content available on the Net. Not to talk about other Indian languages.
But that is not deterring the innovative players to invest for what they see is a large market in the future. Yahoo will not talk on record but well-placed company insiders say it is already working on offering the channel in Indian local languages.
Chennai-based Sify.com has been one of the first off the block and offers its portal in five regional languages - Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Malayalam. It's happy with the response: About 10-15 per cent of its traffic currently is coming from these channels. The company has also launched email services in over 11 languages.
Soon to be launched will be video news in local languages. Surely that is why it has targeted an 80 per cent increase in its revenues this year - part of which will come from the regional portals.
Says Surya Mantha, senior vice-president, Sify.com: "The inflection point for local language portals taking off might be one or two years later. But you need to invest in it now"
That is precisely what Microsoft with its "Bhasa India" portal and Delhi based Indicus Analytics is working on. Indicus found that the biggest problem for users in Hindi was how to access pages in Hindi.
You could not use existing popular search engines, as you could not query in Hindi. Just a few weeks ago the company launched Raftaar.com - a search engine with a soft key, so that you can type in Hindi alphabets (which are on the screen) with a click of the PC button.
The Delhi-based company has spent Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) and took 12 months to develop the product on an experimental basis. Says Peeush Bajpayee, a director in Indicus: "We are getting 300 to 500 hits a day without any publicity. We hope it will go up to 7000 hits soon." Next in line are search engines in Bengali, Tamil and all other languages based on the Devanagiri script."
On the other hand, Microsoft as part of its special initiative launched "Bhasa India" a community portal in various Indian languages which provides users a platform to express their views on regional language computing, attract developers to post queries and even use the knowledge of users to create technical glossary of software and hardware technology. The result: it is getting over 300,000 hits a month and has over 20,000 odd registered users.
Why the rush
So why are companies rushing in to experiment with regional language portals? Surely because of the large user base. Says Bajpayee: "The internet user market growth is slowing down. The 30-40 million Internet users cover virtually a majority of the English speaking users. But if you need that Internet user numbers to grow you have to tap the non-English speaking population. It is inevitable".
The numbers are compelling - there are over 300 million Hindi newspaper readers compared to only 60-70 million in English, not to talk about the large readership in other Indian languages. That's a market waiting to be tapped.
More importantly, there is an untapped market waiting to be reached by smart companies. A study by Delhi-based Juxtconultant - a research company-shows that over 44 per cent of the existing Internet users preferred Hindi as an alternative to English on the Internet, while a substantial 25 per cent wanted it in southern languages.
What is giving a fillip to the quest for regional language portals, is the advent of new technology on the one hand and the push of the government to bring PC and broadband connectivity to rural India. Microsoft, for instance, is already working on what is considered a killer application - "machine translation" technology in local Indian languages - by which it will be possible for users to get any English portal page into their preferred language of choice by just pressing a button.
Says Prasad: "Apart from work in machine translation, "Windows Vista" - the new operating system which will be launched by the third quarter of this year - will be available in 11 regional languages from Bengali to Gujarati and Malaylam."
In simple terms, it means that users wanting regional language operating system on their PCs do not have to go through the bother of having to download a language interface software to use their language.
It will be available in a pack itself or come preloaded in your PC. Even competitor, Google, is not ready to stay behind - it is looking at the potential of machine translation in Indian dialects too.
On the hardware side, innovation is the keyword. Already about 10 per cent of the PCs shipped in the country are with multilingual keyboards - these numbers are expected to go up manifold. Sensing the need to overcome the language barrier, the government mooted a language technology mission to prepare software tools and fonts in local languages in PCs. And it is showing results.
Just a few months ago, HCL Infosystems decided to preload its entire range of PCs with software developed by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing in three languages - Tamil, Hindi and Telugu.
More companies are tying up with government to spread PC penetration in rural India. Sify, for instance, is setting up over lakh kiosks in rural areas where it will give broadband connectivity (it has tied up with ILFS). Says Mantha: "Obviously, the content for these kiosks running in talukas and villages has to be in their own language and not in English".
However, the road ahead is surely not that easy as it might sound. Chhajlani of webdunia.com, which offers help to Microsoft, says that pathbreaking technology is still a long way off. He adds: "Machine translation for Indian languages might be five to six years away - as it is based on artificial intelligence software."
Instead the company offers users "transliteration" software support - in which you can input Hindi words by using English keys (so, for instance, you can type Alvida in English, but the software will understand it is a Hindi word).
Chhajlani also notes that in China, due to the Internet boom and the availability of Mandarin Chinese content, even the Internet Protocol addresses are in the local language. In India, while local langauge IP addresess are available now, not too many people are opting for them.
The key challenge is, of course, to woo advertisers to put in money. Says Chhajlani: "Only five per cent of internet advertising goes to regional languages - the rest is all with English portals. That is the key challenge" Sify's Mantha is more charitable when he says that about 10-15 per cent of Internet advertisement revenues are taken up Indian language portals.
That is why many like Chhajlani have been treading very carefully. Conscious of the fact that the company cannot be sustained through advertising on the portal webdunia alone, it has positioned itself as a one-stop regional language technology shop.
It sells its regional content to a range of magazines and newspapers as well as portals and mobile companies. It offers proprietary technology, which it has developed for emails, chat services and other aspects of a portal. Chhajlani says only 20 per cent of his company's revenue come from advertising in the portal - and after five years it hopes to break even on its portal this year. But the good news is that at least 50 per cent of the advertisers who come to his site are repeat customers.
There are others who are looking at creating a new advertising market altogether. Jeevanshathi.com also hopes to create a new classified market on the net through its Hindi marriage portal.
Says Bikchandani: "At the moment, the Rs 80 crore (Rs 800 million) matrimonial classified ad market is entirely in English. While there will be some cannibalisation, our expectation is that we will create a new market altogether for Hindi."
Of course, his executives say part of that market would come from the Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) vernacular print matrimonial classifieds market, which could partly shift to the Net. The estimate: in the next three years the Hindi matrimonial classifieds market could be around Rs 20-30 crore (Rs 200-300 million) when they would break even.
Others like MSN are looking at innovative ways to attract local advertisers. MSN for instance offers desktop TV on the portal where companies could advertise their products. They want to offer a similar advertising space in regional language too.The message is loud and clear. Indian language portals are slowly but surely coming of age. And in the next few years, no one associated with the Net business can ignore its potential. And their success will depend on leveraging the millions of Indians who are non-English speaking and bring them to use the Net and, of course, their websites.
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