The spread of Internet in India today is constrained by the fact that it is based essentially on the use of the English language.
It is the 10th anniversary of the Internet. It was 1996 when the Netscape IPO hit the market and a flood of capital launched the Internet into mainstream culture. Internet has, since then, seen tremendous growth with many upheavals. Its commercial viability, its reach and many such dimensions were questioned time and again, but its utility always remained unquestioned. With Web2.0 emerging a new phenomenon and many new web applications being invented to make Internet more interactive, it has reached new highs.
However, the spread of Internet in India is today constrained by the fact that it is based essentially on the use of the English language. Those who have been benefited by Internet are only in urban areas. Even there only those have been benefited who are able to communicate in English. It is a disappointing situation. When we compare ourselves with China, we find ourselves in a miserable condition. For instance, China's Baidu is world's fifth most visited website, where as the most visited Hindi website (jagran.com) is placed at 6,338 rank worldwide.
During the period, when readership of Hindi newspapers increased many times, it is quite illogical to see that in the online world Hindi's presence remained very limited. It doesn't mean that Hindi remained totally absent on the net. Many websites came up and are running very well. Most of these websites are related to local media groups. There are efforts at the government level, too. Under the information technology ministry and Raj Bhasha department Government has done a lot to propagate Hindi in the online world. Again there are individual efforts. People have done lot within their own capacity to make Hindi available in the online world. But there are some constraints that limit the development of Hindi in the world of web.
The under development of Web in Indian regional languages is one of the important reasons behind the limited growth of Internet in India. This fact is now being realised by many CEOs of established Internet companies here. Sanjeev Beekchandani of Naukri.com has started the Hindi version of his matrimonial portal Jeevansathi.com. Microsoft is going to launch the Hindi version of MSN and hotmail. MSN's programming head Krishna Prasad says, `80 percent of Indians don't understand English. So, it is a must for us to enter in this medium.' Microsoft has many plans for Hindi. A recent survey by a Delhi based research organisation - Juxt Consult - says that 44 % of existing Internet users in India prefer Hindi to English, if made available. Similarly 25% existing Internet users prefer other regional languages. Internet Companies understand this attitude of Indian users. Microsoft's Bhasha India is doing lot of job in Indian regional languages. Delhi based Indicus is also doing small but very promising effort in developing Hindi on the web. The company has started a Hindi search engine and is going to develop it in other regional languages. Many big companies like Google, Yahoo and Sify are also taking big steps in Hindi and other regional languages.
So, why this rush in Hindi and regional languages? The first and foremost reason is that development of Internet in India has stagnated due to its availability in English only. Everyone in the industry feels that next phase of development will be in regional languages. There are more than seven crore readers of Hindi Newspapers, while English has only 2.6 crore. But in the Internet arena the scenario is just opposite. Internet companies have an eye on filling this gap.
Despite the latent demand among Internet users for Hindi, if there is very dismal use of Hindi, it is due to certain constraints. These include technological, attitudinal and economic factors. Among these technological factor is most important and other factors are mostly related to it.
To understand these factors we will have to first take a view of development of Internet. Internet is relatively a new technology developed in west. Over the past decade it has become the most influential developments of modern society. From a simple mechanism to connect two computers situating at different locations, it now has become a popular culture worldwide. However, the common thread remained the English language. Since in all the western countries the roman script is used, other languages didn't face too many problems. France, Italy, Germany and many others managed to effectively provide the interconnectivity using their local languages. Other countries like Japan and China have a different script, but they also managed to provide a common platform for using net in their local language. In India, however, we still face a number of constraints. The basic problem in the spread of Internet is of script. Most of the Indian languages have a different script and the standard input and output available in roman script of a computer can't be used. When a user uses Hindi on Internet, he faces three problems - the hardware (Keyboard, Computer etc), the software (user interface) and the content.
In connecting a user to Internet, the most important hardware used in the keyboard. The problem in Hindi is that there in no standard format. Different people use different keyboards. When a user accustomed to one type of keyboard finds himself in front of another type of keyboard, he becomes quite helpless. Many solutions have been given to solve this problem, but they didn't succeed. This problem can't be solved until there is a sincere and serious effort at the government level to create a standard keyboard for Hindi. However, many companies are doing their best effort to find a solution. Among them there are big players like Microsoft and Google, too. Small players like Indicus net labs are also working on a solution.
Secondly, absence of a Hindi search engine also hinders the user in exploring the content on the Internet. China has developed its own search engine - Baidu, and is the world's fifth most visited website. Baidu controls over 56% of the Chinese search market. It is giving tough competition to Google, which wants to enter the Chinese market. In Hindi, some efforts are on. Google and Yahoo are trying to bring their search engines in Hindi. A new search engine called Raftaar is in its testing phase. It gives user the option to type his queries in Hindi and it searches only the Hindi websites. It also gives the user a soft keypad to write. This website is in its testing phase and it is yet to be seen whether it attracts a huge number of users or not.
The last, but not the least constraint in spread of Hindi over the net is that of limited content. Where there are more than 20 billion pages on web in English, this number is not more than 10 million in Hindi. This poverty of content is partly due to technological factors and partly due to attitudinal. It is quite disappointing to see that most efforts to spread Hindi over the net are done by foreign companies. The same is the situation about content. Many Hindi websites are just the online version of the Hindi newspapers. Only Jagran.com is doing something different and therefore it is the most successful Hindi website. Except Jagran.com and webdunia.com, probably no other Hindi website is running on its own. These are not a commercially viable business for their owners.
On the other hand, there are Government websites, which run because of the Government's commitment. There are many individual efforts, too. A number of people have developed their websites and blogs, but these are not very useful for a common user. Again there are websites by private companies. ITC's e-choupal, Drishti, Tarahaat and N-logue are such websites, but these are also not a commercially viable option.
It is a big dilemma that on the one hand the number of Hindi readers and number of Hindi-speaking people using mobile and computers is so large, and on the other hand the websites are very limited in their content and number. This dilemma should be overcome as soon as possible. There are both Governmental and private efforts to make technological constraints irrelevant. I will try to view these efforts at a glance:
- In contrast to present True Type Fonts, Adobe and Microsoft have developed Open type fonts. These fonts are better for languages like Hindi.
- Efforts are on to develop Unicode font. Microsoft's Bhasha India is very close to cracking a solution for all Indian languages, including Hindi.
- As an initial solution dynamic fonts are being used. Jagran.com is doing this. In this, user doesn't have to download fonts to view website. This gives user a great relief, but it is not a full and final solution, since there is very little scope for interactiveness.
- Microsoft has developed a Unicode based font - mangal. This is a positive indication for Hindi's future over the net.
- There are efforts going on to develop a spell-check mechanism, dictionary and thesaurus. C-Dac is doing a good job. IIT(Mumbai) and the Mysore based Center for Indian Languages are also making sincere efforts.
- Satyam, IIIT(Hyderabad) and IIT (Kanpur) have setup a resource center at Hyderabad. Its aim is to develop a dictionary and spell-check mechanism for Hindi and other Indian language users.
- Microsoft is trying to develop a dictionary and spell-check mechanism for Hindi and other Indian language users on its own. It is bringing new edition of Windows XP, which will work in nine Indian languages including Hindi.
- Google is also developing a Search engine in Hindi.
- Web based companies like - Drishti, Tarahaat and ITC's e-choupal are trying to develop mechanisms to spread Internet in rural India.
- Wikipedia is coming up with its own Hindi version.
- The Delhi based Indicus net labs has started a search engine in Hindi named raftaar. Though it is in its testing phase, this effort is very promising.
These efforts to solve the technological and search based hurdles are indications that bright days for Hindi on web are not far. The coming one or two years may become a milestone for Hindi's development on the web. Major companies are making sincere efforts since Hindi is a 100 million-user market and all have an eye on it. Particularly Google and Yahoo don't want to repeat the same mistake they have done in China. In China, they have to work hard to gain a small success. Baidu is posing a big challenge to them in China. Really, the time is ripe to make major efforts to make Hindi web content rich. Development of Hindi over the net will bring a new phase of development for the Hindi society. It will open doors for transparency and e-governance, too.
Hindi on the Net has commercial potential too. Private players are doing their best efforts and more new players will enter this field in near future. It is upto Government to take a serious step. Without that all these efforts will not yield much more.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org