Internet giants such as Amazon.com and SoftBank are investing in India to cash in on the country’s spiking Web use. In less than two years, 100 million people have moved online, bringing the country’s total to 302 million in 2014, according to the Internet & Mobile Association of India. That makes India second only to China in its number of Internet users. U.S. corporate chiefs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have visited India in the past year to explore opportunities. But an enormous slice of India’s population can’t make use of anything those companies have to offer online.
G. Venkatesh, a 42-year-old office worker in Chennai, is one of hundreds of millions of Indians the Internet largely ignores. He’s a native speaker of Tamil, a language common in India’s southern states, and doesn’t understand much English. He says he can check his e-mail online and can sometimes use the Internet to look up addresses and phone numbers, and that’s about it. Even Indian websites that focus on his main reading interests—yoga, movies, sports—are of little use to him, because they’re mostly written in English. “So I depend on books,” he says, or Tamil newspapers for box scores and movie reviews. “I have not read about them on the Internet.”
Almost all the websites in India are available only in English, a language that’s familiar to many middle-class city dwellers but a mystery to a vast portion of the population. About one-third of the Indians online don’t speak English, and they “can be considered as partially served or not served at this time because of lack of localized content,” says Rakesh Kapoor, managing director of Process Nine Technologies, a software company in Gurgaon. Among the country’s smartphone users, fewer than 40 percent have devices that can display Hindi, the most common local language. Support for India’s nine other major languages is even worse, says Reverie Language Technologies Chief Executive Officer Arvind Pani. Gujarati, the language of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, “would not even have 1 percent coverage,” he says.
U.S. companies seeking to expand in India have to wrestle with this disconnect, and Google has taken the lead. In November the Android developer announced partnerships with 18 Indian companies, including Process Nine and Reverie, to develop online content in languages other than English. “India is going to get to 500 million Internet users, but 300 million are not going to be proficient in English,” says Google India managing director Rajan Anandan. To avoid squandering that advertising opportunity, Google is also focusing on targeting ads to non-English speakers. On Dec. 15, the search giant introduced AdSense in Hindi, enabling owners of Hindi-language sites to buy Hindi keywords.
In September, Google made India the first market for the Android One smartphones, priced at about $100, which it developed working with Indian phone makers such as Micromax and Karbonn. The Android One supports English and Hindi and will add five more local languages when Google releases the next version of its mobile operating system. In November, Google added Hindi voice-search capabilities to its phones.
Google India product manager Kapil Khosla says the company has been able to expand its language options without a big hiring push, because it already has employees from throughout India whom it’s enlisted for these projects. “There’s a huge diaspora of Indian-language speakers in the U.S., and we have a lot across Google itself,” he says, adding that this includes languages such as Hindi and Tamil.
Microsoft last year began offering users the ability to input Hindi text on their mobile phones. During his visit to New Delhi in October, Facebook’s Zuckerberg announced a contest to encourage developers to create local-language mobile apps. Mozilla, which controls the open-source browser Firefox, is using India as a testing ground for software that customers who buy Firefox-branded smartphones can use to create local-language websites and apps. “This is not about getting people on the Internet,” says Mark Surman, Mozilla’s executive director. “It’s about, what Internet do they find when they get there?”
Among local companies, e-commerce site Snapdeal.com is a leader, introducing Hindi and Tamil versions last year. The country’s other two big e-commerce companies, Amazon India and homegrown rival Flipkart, are available only in English. India’s government is mostly working on more basic issues, such as helping Indians get online in the first place. Modi’s government is promoting an $18 billion Digital India campaign to expand broadband Internet access and services; the government’s program to connect 250,000 villages to the Web by 2016 is far behind schedule.
Sourabh Kaushal, a manager at researcher Analysys Mason in New Delhi, says offering government services online in local languages would be nice, but government websites are unlikely to drive the spread of local languages online because most people rarely need to visit them. That said, there are a few clear missed opportunities, including scheduling for train network Indian Railways. About 23 million people a day ride the trains, including millions of speakers of Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, and other local languages, but the Indian Railways website is available only in English and Hindi.
The bottom line: English is the Internet’s language in India, even though one-third of the online population doesn’t speak it.