The Boston Consulting Group released a fairly comprehensive report on how India could become a $200 Billion internet economy by 2018. The report is fairly long (44 pages), so you can head to YourStory for a neat summary.

The report made some pertinent observations which substantiate a hypothesis I have been building over the last few years:

“The face of new online India will be markedly more diverse. She will use the mobile phone as her primary and often only access point. Her preferred services will match the day-to-day demands of a low to middle income household, markedly vernacular-heavy life often outside a tier I city.”

The report goes on to state that rural users as a percentage of the Internet population will rise from 29% in 2013 to between 40 and 50% in 2018.

“One major enabler in this regard could be the increasing use of vernacular content to deliver information and other services over the Internet. As an ever more diverse base of users, including rural netizens, gets on to the Internet, they may increasingly opt to access it in their native language.”

Most estimates put the number of English speakers in India at 125 Million (~10% of our population) and only a meagre 225K have English as a first language. (These estimates are a few years old, but even as a best case scenario, we don’t have more than 200 Million English speakers in India.)

If India is to hit 550 Million internet users by 2018, where are the vernacular apps for more than 350 Million (non-English speaking) users?

A quick search on Google Play (turn your default language into Hindi, Tamil, etc) will show you that apart from a few dominant news providers and aggregators (Dainik Bhaskar, Manorama, Amar Ujala, NewsHunt, etc), apps that are predominantly vernacular are missing. A few Bollywood and music apps also seem to feature Indian languages.

Most app makers (even those who are focused on the Indian market) do not localize their apps. Forget localizing the app – even the Google Play description is barely in any Indian language. Android has drastically improved its Indian language support in 2014 and major keyboard improvements are also being made regularly. So a platform-dependent tech backlog cannot be blamed for the resistance/ reluctance that most app-makers seem to show towards local language support.

Case in point:

Hotstar – an app by Star India which allows users to watch TV shows, movies and live sports on smart phones has been advertising heavily on television (almost non-stop on sports channels). As a result, as of 9th February they are the number one app in India on the Play Store (just over a month after release – already crossed more than a million downloads).

Hotstar - Rank in India (via AppAnnie)
Hotstar – Rank in India (via AppAnnie)

They have strong content from their TV channels in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali and Marathi. This is their app description page on the Play Store (when accessed with Hindi as default language):

Hotstar - Play Store 1Hotstar - Play Store 2

Only one line of text in Hindi – the “Short Description” field on the Play Store! I don’t mean to pick on one specific app or developer – this is the case across the board. Apps are mostly being made by people in Tier I cities who are clearly out of touch with a bulk of their users who are (or are going to be) from Tier II – IV cities and rural areas. This is a gap we need to bridge.

App developers need to make a conscious decision to go vernacular. English might be fantastic for early adoption in the current market. But without a strong vernacular strategy one will not survive to see the $200 Billion market.

If things go right, I foresee a few strong trends emerging over the next two years in India:

  • More translation shops that provide high quality translations (FB continuously pops up some cringe-worthy game and app ads for me in Hindi) in Indian languages will pop up
  • Major app releases will first happen in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu or simultaneously along with English
  • Vernacular pulp fiction (a way bigger force in Indian publishing than English) will go digital in a big way
  • Early adopters like NewsHunt will continue dominating the vernacular news market (but will see strong competition from other players)
  • Big online media start-ups (with vernacular content) will emerge as industry leaders

My personal hope is to see Indian languages survive, thrive and evolve as a result of the internet and mobile boom in India. And luckily, Indian languages and the internet economy seem to be closely tied to each other’s success.

Why Do We Make Apps in English in India?
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