NEW DELHI, AUG 12:News from the Indian corner of the Internet. With the number of its net users topping 50 million, India ranks fourth, behind the US, China and Japan, among the world’s top web-savvy nations. But that’s about the only good news.
The prospect of the number of India’s netizens growing is bleak, given that most among the local population that can speak English (about 150 million), the lingua franca on the net, are already on the web. “The English speaking market in India is saturated,” says Deepak Maheswari, secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India.
That’s bad news for the spread of Internet usage in India. As it is, notwithstanding the country’s fourth place in the global pecking order, the net’s penetration is abysmally low, with less than one in 20 Indians accessing the web, according to online tracker of web usage InternetWorldStats.com.
When government-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd launched its ‘DataOne’ broadband service early in 2004, India had set an ambitious target of three million connections by the end of the year, nine million by 2007 and 20 million by 2010. But the numbers thus far have been far from satisfactory — as of June 2006, there are only 1.5 million broadband users in the country.
How can India reverse this trend? The answer, the local ISP industry and tech insiders believe, lies in local language content. A recent survey by New Delhi online research consultant JuxtConsult among Net users in India showed 44% of respondents preferred sites in Hindi and another 25% wanted content in other local Indian languages.
In contrast, Hindi — the world’s third-most spoken language after Mandarin and English — finds no place among the top 10 languages on the Internet. English leads the chart, accounting for 30% of all net users, followed by Chinese with 13.8%, and Japanese with 8.3%, says InternetWorldStats.com.
Hindi portals, till recently, were limited to news sites, which were essentially web-versions of existing print media. Of late, it has rapidly expanded across verticals: rural marketing, e-learning, politics, current affairs, cinema, religion, health, literature, travel, women’s issues, children and youth.
Says Anand Kumar, executive director, Relative Media, a content provider specialising in education content: “There has been strong demand for regional language educational resource. We are more comfortable in our own language.”
The company has developed content for Vidyavahini, a government-led initiative, NIIT and National Institute of Open Schooling.
Hindi search engine raftaar.in is encouraged by the response it's been getting on its trial runs. "We receive around 5,000 hits everyday and will launch the beta version on August 15," says director Peeyush Bajpai, who's enthused enough to launch the engine in Tamil, Telegu and Bengali "eventually".
Other vernacular efforts include Hindi websites for e-mail (epatra and mailjol), live cricket scores and astrological services (prabhasakshi), matchmaking (jeevansathi's Hindi version) and content aggregation (samachar). Google has a Hindi interface, Microsoft has plans for a Hindi edition of MSN.com and Wikipedia already has a Hindi version. Sify has multiple Indian languages option, while rivals, such as Rediff, allow surfers to mail in Hindi.
Analysts are not sanguine that the vernacular Internet will fly though local language has made a big splash on alternative media like short messaging services on mobile phones. "Newspapers are lopsided with vernacular dominance. But in the Internet space, it has not translated into business," says Alok Shende, ICT practice India director at researcher Frost & Sullivan.
Yet, the industry is upbeat and believes it can emulate cable television example. At the time of its entry, cable TV in India was dominated by English content but soon gave way to Hindi and other local languages. "With more penetration, more and more quality content will be sought. Demand for regional content is growing," says Kumar. The next big thing, then, could be a slew of sites in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and other Indian languages.