MUMBAI: Jayalekshmy Nair, an avid reader of regional-language blogs, visited a Malayalam news website for the first time recently. How did she get there? Google News, which now aggregates news in Malayalam as well.
Like her, Indians who till now couldn’t find an interface for news in their mother-tongue, are discovering a way to read that news online.
The recent launch of Google News in four regional languages — Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi — has helped make that possible. And the search engine giant is also launching features that will empower non-English speaking internet users to use web beyond reading just news.
Prasad Ram, head — research and development (R&D), Google India, is the man pushing this initiative.
Ram is from Karnataka and his parents, he says, are extremely proficient in Kannada literature. “Even they are interested in engaging sources beyond the routine ones. Till now, they’ve been consuming newspapers, books, art. Soon, they will be able to gain from the collective wisdom of the internet, in their own language.”
He points out: “Only 7% of Indians are proficient in English. So, if Google’s power has to be experienced by the rest, we have to add languages.”
India has over 40 million internet users and this base is growing rapidly, banking not just on broadband infrastructure, but also online lollies such as gaming, social networking, matrimony and job portals.
For Google, news, information and local listings are the next El-Dorado of the web, for which it has begun innovating. It is targeting Indian users who are comfortable with PCs, but not yet proficient in English. Hence, the regional push. “It’s not India’s burgeoning expat population that’s making Google do this. When there are 1.2 billion people within India to tap into, a few million people across the world don’t matter. It becomes critical to innovate for the larger base,” Ram told DNA Money.
Which is why, the popularity of a few applications from Google, in the near future could supplement and even change the way Indian users interact with regional and English websites.
For example, users can search in 18 different languages by choosing letters from Indic On Screen keyboard using a mouse. The transliteration features allow them to type in English and automatically convert text into Hindi, Tamil, Kannada or Malayalam, by simply hitting the space bar.
And then of course, there’s the biggie — Google Translate — that helps translate entire websites by simply typing the URL (or the web link) and clicking on the translate button. So a website, say, on diabetes, can be translated just at the click of a button. To exploit community features, Google Map-maker, the Wiki-based application, can help users create local listings — such as restaurants, local events, landmarks — and even authenticate the information.
“Essentially, we’re allowing the whole country to paint one single canvas by stitching different ones together. So the challenge and the innovation, for us, lies in getting a billion to people to paint together, irrespective of the fact that it’s already been done in so many countries,” says Ram.
The idea, he says, is to make a “locally inspired global product”.
His parting shot: “The lack of innovative and relevant content is stopping people not very proficient in English from accessing info and we’re trying to bridge the digital divide. In the future, it’ll all happen on cellphones. There’s so much that can be done… crop prices, weather, agriculture.”