Indians Inch Towards Completely Localized Linux

by Hinesh Jethwani    Jun 15, 2004

When it comes to lingual diversity, India clinches the top spot hands down. With an immense untapped potential in the worldwide local language software market, Indian tech gurus have taken the lead to push their own mantra, “Be Indian, Buy Indian”.

Actively spearheading the crusade is Indlinux.org - a group of technical evangelists who combine skills in written scripts and free/open source technologies to create a national-level, collaborative effort for localizing Linux to Indian languages.

Speaking to CXOtoday, Venkatesh Hariharan, co-founder, Indlinux.org, said, “We are all set to launch our very first Gnome CD that supports most of the major Indian languages in the next couple of months. The MOSIX based bootable CD ROM has been christened ’Rangoli’ - which literally means an array of different colours.”

Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam, Hindi and Gujarati, among others, are supported in this freeware version of Gnome.

“Just a few months back, Gujarati and Punjabi were nowhere on the local language radar. With the acceptance of Linux desktops growing steadily, and its maturity now proven, interns were hired from Gujarat for translation - an initiative taken by a group called Utkarsh. To give an example of the commitment of project volunteers, a translator actually sat for 19 hours at a stretch to convert 2000 strings of Linux into Punjabi!” explained Hariharan.

Localizing the user interface of Linux to all the 18 official Indian languages will involve changing the menus and help-text, and creating a whole stack of applications and tools (word processors, browsers, spell-checkers etc.) to enable local language computing.

“Indians are involved in a lot of grass root level activity as far as the Linux movement is concerned, and since translation is a decentralized activity, there are a lot of infrastructure bottlenecks,” lamented Hariharan

The task of localization has several pieces that need domain expertise. Some examples are I/O modules, development of fonts, kernel enablement, word translation, etc.

“We have come a long way from our first effort at local language translation in the year 2000. Hindi - India’s lingual flagship - was the first language to be translated by our group and later supported by Gnome. Being the first Linux translation effort in the country, it was a mammoth effort spread over 3 years. Translation was done by random conversion of each and every Portable Object (PO) file, making it a painstaking process. Learning from mistakes, we realized that a better approach was to take the entire glossary and Indianise it, as it contained the most commonly used words.”

Interestingly, the Indianisation of Linux was plagued by complications caused by the complexities of Indian scripts. “This is where language experts and translators were required to closely co-ordinate with developers,” explained Hariharan. According to his predictions, in the next two years all the major Indian languages will be incorporated into Linux.

A strong crusader against ’Dollar denominated software’, Hariharan described his views on the scenario in India. “Indianised software has resulted in an explosion, which can be closely compared to the regional television channel boom. At one point of time, local language TV stations were unheard of. With a drastic drop in prices, there are now almost 3-4 different channels for every local language in the country! A similar movement will resonate in the Indian software industry as well. As computer hardware prices are falling, even remote villages are now realizing that personal computing is affordable. It is a crying shame that Indian softwares are not available for the majority the population that exists in rural areas,” explained Hariharan.

Since English is a language spoken by less than 10 percent of India’s population (generally considered to be the language of the affluent) language is a significant barrier for the other 90 percent of India.

“No Indian wants to pay Rs 8,000 for a Microsoft OS. I think it’s ridiculous to even believe the fact that the general population can afford it (As many would argue that if rural districts can afford the hardware, why should an expensive OS be out of reach?). IT companies need to go beyond metros, and tap the huge potential in Talukas and rural districts,” explained Hariharan.

IndLinux has already consulted a team working on a Nepalese version of Linux, and is slated to take a trip to the Bhutan market for spreading Linux awareness next month. The Indian Linux project is open source and completely free. It is licensed under the GNU General Public License.

Tags: Linux