Is there a demand for software in local languages? Is it required? Will it sell? Who will do it?
There is a story which is repeated in many textbooks on Marketing Management. Two salesmen arrive in a country and find that the population does not use footwear. One of them reports back to headquarters: “There is no demand for footwear in this country, as people here do not use any footwear.” The other wires a different message: “There is tremendous demand for footwear in this country, as people here do not use any footwear.”
Needless to say, it was the second salesman who got a pay raise and an accelerated promotion.
The naysayers who say that there is no demand for local language software in South Asia should take this story to heart, for here there obviously is such a demand. Whoever can access and provide the services in terms of hardware and software, can rake in the profit. There have been a number of studies to indicate that the return on investments in information technology (IT) is very high. Till now, it has been the small English-savvy group of South Asians who have been able to reap the benefits of IT, while the larger population which does not have English has been excluded. This is hardly just, and does not tally with the much-vaunted goals of achieving equality and social justice.
It is a fact, of course, that presently there is very little software available in the Subcontinent’s local languages. Much of what is there is limited to word processing applications; some of the other localised software costs more money, or even means additional hardware. Sometimes, using computers in South Asian languages even require spending an extra INR 8000-10,000. In other words, there is at times a hidden penalty to be paid for working in a local language. No wonder, then, that most people prefer to stick to English on their screens, with the result that computing in local languages has not picked up.
At present, computerisation efforts and their benefits have remained limited to only the English-using category – some five percent of the population. Computerisation has not touched the larger masses.
It is often said that it is the lack of purchasing power of the larger masses that keeps computers restricted to the English-speaking classes. This argument is not entirely valid. Let us consider a section of the larger Indian mass, for example. If you look at the work of small-time shopkeepers in any town – Bombay, Badaun, Gaya, Trichi or Bhavnagar – you will find that there is no reason to doubt their purchasing power or to believe that they will not be able to benefit from computerisation.
This population of shopkeepers can definitely use computers to business advantage, provided there is software in their language to adopt and implement successfully. Presently, these proprietors of small businesses have to learn English to use computers or hire an employee who knows English. This creates a problem because they would then have to share their closely guarded business secrets with this person. They would embrace computerisation if there was software in a language they can use.
India’s computer and software companies have to think in terms of a new approach to deal with this large potential market, one which has purchasing power but no English. The size of this small-shopkeeper market is large: it makes up about 40-50 percent of shops in big cities and 10 to 20 percent of shops in the smaller towns. This amounts to about 15 to 20 times the size of the existing market of Indian computer companies. It’s bad economics for the industry to ignore this market until it learns English, for that day will take too long in coming.
A study of returns on investment shows that the computerisation of these small shops (mainly for inventory management and accounting) will pay for itself in six to eight months. In other words, there is plenty of scope to sell such localised software.
Who will do it?
The development of local software can best be taken up by specialists who know both computers as well as the relevant South Asian local language(s). In India, for example, there is a large pool of such programmers for whom English is a second or third language. They will be able to prepare software with what is called local language “front-ends”. (In a front-end software, the application is in the local language, but the underlying programme remains in English. In the second step of software localisation, even the underlying programmes would be in a South Asian
This group of programmers who are interested in localising software into their languages has to be supported by the local bodies in the private and public sector. For example, at the national or provincial level, market bodies as well as the various sahitya academies could provide the forum to promote localisation. The market representatives and language bodies would work together to define specifications, government support, subsidies, as well as to promote the product that emerges.
It is not that the big computer companies do not have a role to play in the localisation process. They will definitely have to chalk out a new strategy for their role in the individual countries of South Asia as the market changes and indigenisation proceeds. At that time, they will also adapt and fight for their market share, but it is true that for the moment, these big companies are very comfortable handling large accounts. They are not geared to meet the demands of the small-time computer users, for they are thinly spread across large areas. Their big accounts typically have about 50-100 computers in three or four sites in a city like Bombay.
Once there is software available in local languages, the future market for computers is going to be radically different, and much larger. In the new market, say, of the size of a small town like Vashi in Maharashtra, there will be about 400 computers in a stretch of less than a kilometre. This concentration will be economically viable for any software or hardware vendor. Such large number of computers in such a small area will be far easier to maintain than maintaining the present large accounts. The full market potential will then be realised when we see that there will be hundreds of such dense clusters of computer users in the Bombay area – Dadar, Parel and Crafford market. Now, if we multiply the number of similar markets in small towns all over India, we will be able to fathom the size of this market.
Big companies, if they want to remain big, will have to learn to deal with this new market, where there would be a large number of customers with small holdings. The next wave of computerisation, to speak only of India, will belong to the company that can cater to and capture this large market.