Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Technology companies looking to cater to the many millions of Indians who are expected to soon buy their first smartphones need to understand one thing: most of these citizens communicate and access the Internet in their local languages. The fact that India has 22 officially recognised languages and thousands of local dialects is likely to prove a challenge for many foreign and even local companies, particularly smaller market entrants that lack the resources to tailor their products and services to regional demand needs.
It should be noted that even though English is an official federal-level language of India, the majority of the population doesn't have command of it. So although the interface of most smartphones and tablets sold in the country is in English, and many services are available in English and Hindi, these are nearly useless for many potential users.
One success story is WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million active monthly users in India. The company has jumped on the vernacular bandwagon by offering 11 regional languages. Its parent Facebook supports 13 languages. To help businesses communicate better with their customers, WhatsApp rolled out its free WhatsApp Business service on Android devices, aimed at small companies. The app lets customers view information such as a business description, e-mail and physical addresses and Web site.
Google, which is currently present in nine Indian languages, has an immediate incentive to offer better regional support, as the advertising market in local languages is expected to grow exponentially. The company recently launched AdWords and AdSense in Tamil, which is spoken by 43 million people. It has also started to orchestrate events that bring together content creators and advertisers from across this populous country.
In addition to dominant international companies such as Facebook and Google, Indian entrepreneurs are finding ways to customise their products to the local level. Indus OS is an Indian company that has tailored a mobile operating system to local needs. The company claims to be the world's first regional operating system made for smartphones in India and other emerging markets. Its entire strategy centres on the linguistic complexities of the country: its operating system supports 12 languages that can switch to English and back with just a swipe. Google's Android platform requires seven steps to translate into a local language. It's not surprising that Indus now has an estimated 8 percent smartphone market share in India. This compares with 2 percent for iOS and over 80 percent for Android.
Of course, in the long term it will be very difficult for a small operating system provider to rival the mighty Google and Apple when it comes to the app ecosystem, but the current success of Indus shows that Western companies should pay more attention to localisation if they want to power the more than 900 million smartphones expected to be sold in India over the next five years.
Social media, messaging platforms and hardware makers that fail to quickly adapt to this trend are in line to be disrupted by more nimble competitors. India is a country filled with avid users of information and entertainment content, and for much of the population, English is moving aside in the pursuit of vernacular glory. From here on, the boom in smartphone usage in India will come not from users who understand English, but from those who speak one of the country's many other languages. Future success in India will be linked to companies' ability to improvise and innovate at the local level.