Babel doom, Indic boom

A slew of factors will power internet accessibility in India

Winter solstice, when the sun is farthest from the northern hemisphere, is usually the coldest day of the year. At the DailyHunt headquarters in Bengaluru, however, winter solstice 2020, which fell on December 21, was anything but cold. The new media startup that aggregates news and content from various content providers was basking in the warm glow of success. Its parent company, VerSe, had just been adjudged a unicorn.

What sets apart DailyHunt is that it operates completely in the Indian language space, providing content collected across 14 languages. Interestingly, the latest round of funding of $100 million—which pushed its valuation beyond the magical $1 billion mark—came from Google and Microsoft for the company’s Josh short video app. A statement by the company described itself as “India’s first tech unicorn for local languages”.

It may be the first, but it will not be the last unicorn success story in the Indian language space.

In the summer, the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IMAI) announced that for the first time ever, rural internet users had surpassed urban users—22 crore, compared with 20 crore in cities. In 2021, Hindi internet users may overtake English users. KPMG says that three-fourths of India’s internet users by 2021 will want to access content in Indian languages.

“Every new user coming online is an Indian language user,” said Sanjay Gupta, country head and vice president, Google India. But that is also where the problem lies. The audience is growing by the day but the content is barely keeping pace. On the other side, there are more than five crore small businesses in the country that would like to sell products in the hinterland, but still have sparse software or back-end support to hawk their products in the suitable language.

Breaking barriers: (From left) Vishnu Mohta, cofounder, HoiChoi; Sarabjot Singh Anand, director (computer science and engineering), BML Munjal University; Sanjay Gupta, country manager and vice president of sales and operations, Google India Breaking barriers: (From left) Vishnu Mohta, cofounder, HoiChoi; Sarabjot Singh Anand, director (computer science and engineering), BML Munjal University; Sanjay Gupta, country manager and vice president of sales and operations, Google India

“Businesses speak English and consumers speak a different language,” said Rakesh Kapoor, CEO of Process9, a firm that offers translation solutions for business websites. “It is a huge gap, and this gap really is the opportunity which is in front of us.”

This ‘next billion’ business opportunity is huge and ripe for plucking, where early movers can score big, with most content providers, ranging from entertainment and information to social media and e-commerce, operating on an English-first model. No wonder, a market estimate puts the opportunity in the vernacular content space at Rs40,000 crore in the years to come.

Similar to DailyHunt’s billion-dollar status, there are other homegrown players reaping the dividends of sowing early. ShareChat is one. This social media platform was launched by three IIT Kanpur students who realised the potential of social networks in local languages. Today, ShareChat is available in 15 Indian languages and used by 16 crore Indians. “The Indian internet market is bustling with opportunities at the moment,” said ShareChat co-founder & chief technology officer Bhanu Pratap Singh. Google is reportedly in talks to buy ShareChat, valuing it as a unicorn.

Last year, when Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced a $10 billion investment plan for India, he had said that the money will be invested in companies “enabling affordable access and information for every Indian in their own language”. While the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and even Apple support different languages, ease-of-use and universal acceptance still remain a distant goal.

“In India, it is a complex problem to solve,” admits Gupta. “But this has not deterred us. We’ve been investing in this for over a decade. We’ve taken a holistic solution to solve for consumption, communication and creation.”

Google has expanded Indian languages support for many of its applications like Google Maps (nine languages) and Google Assistant (nine languages). Gboard, its keyboard, now supports 60 Indian languages, including Bhojpuri and Tulu. Google is investing more in machine learning and artificial intelligence to become better in understanding local languages and colloquialism.

While the input point, conventionally the keyboard, has been a vexing issue, trends indicate a shift to voice and video interactions. “Speech-to-text and text-to-speech interfaces are going to be key in the future, especially if we want to give access to information to those who are not English speakers and are also not ‘readers’,” said Dr Sarabjot Singh Anand, director (computer science & engineering), BML Munjal University.

The video boom in recent years has meant that a large chunk of Indians now access the internet for video entertainment. TikTok was a trailblazer of sorts in the local language content creation space. New entrants like Roposo, Chingari and even Instagram’s Reel (the Facebook-owned company is testing its Instagram Lite app in India, which has support for nine Indian languages) are now trying to fill the gap left by the TikTok ban. On streaming platforms, it is Indian language content that is ruling the roost, with even global biggies like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video focusing on creating local content. “There are millions of people in India who speak a regional language. To put that into context, that is an extremely wide base to go after when one is thinking about any sort of offering,” said Vishnu Mohta, co-founder of Hoichoi, a popular OTT platform which offers programming only in Bengali.

While entertainment is mostly in a receive-only mode, things get more complex when it comes to other services, such as online shopping and net banking. With government services also going increasingly online, the digital divide gets even more wider.

“Services needed by rural India are different from urban settings,” said Anand. “Most people are unaware of their rights. Access to information and open governance provides huge opportunities. Health care, education and agritech are some of the key areas where tech companies can impact rural India.”

This is where intrepid domestic entrepreneurs have jumped in. They range from Vokal, an app where villagers can get their questions answered by experts in 11 Indian languages, to Process9, which translates content in real time with neural machine translation for the likes of HDFC, Bajaj and Paytm. Vokal’s founder, Aprameya Radhakrishna, is so convinced of the Indic boom that he launched Koo, a Twitter-like micro-blogging site in Indian languages. myUpchar, a startup which specialises in online consultations with doctors and medicine delivery to tier 2 and tier 3 towns, offers its services in five Indian languages beside English. Its usage shot up 300 per cent during the lockdown, and 25 per cent in the ensuing months.

Or take eSamudaay, a ready-to-use platform which a local business can use to sell in small localities. The startup offers services on both fronts, content and the back-end technology, where it uses conversational artificial intelligence. “There is a language and user interface barrier,” said Anup Pai, founder & CEO of eSamudaay. “Once we have adequate local language content, conversational support in Indian languages and availability of local digital businesses, we see this barrier dissolving and more people being able to derive value from their smartphone devices and data networks.”

The government has been pushing the Indian language agenda. It has been nudging mobile phone makers to adopt Indian languages in handsets sold in India. The Telecom Department’s Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL) section is looking at developing processing tools and techniques for human-machine interaction without language barriers. The citizen engagement platform MyGov has also been planning its language options.

India’s Ajay Data is the head of the Universal Acceptance Steering Group, which works towards an across-the-board acceptance for domain names and email addresses in all languages. “We all have the responsibility to bring the next one billion online [with] universal acceptance which means all software, apps and devices must work in all 22 Indian languages,” he said recently. “Seems reasonable and expected, but not always met.”

Sarika Gulyani, director & head, ICT, digital economy and FICCI’s Indian Language Internet Alliance, put it succinctly. “Vernacular [is] one of the crucial components for getting the masses online,” she said. “This is important for realising a mass internet revolution.” The internet’s next billion is awaiting this spring revolution.