India’s Upcoming Indic Language Mandate For Mobile Devices – An Overview

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The Government of India is rolling out a mandate covering Indic text support on smartphones and feature phones. We will be covering the mandate and what it means for India’s tens of millions of internet users in a series. Here’s our introduction to what the mandate is and what it entails.

The Indian government, with the help of its Bureau of Indian Standards arm, has mandated support for Indic languages on all phones sold in the country – both feature phones and smartphones. In addition, they must adhere to certain defined character sets for each language.

Now, what does that mean for the end user?

When different devices use different character sets, you end up with inconsistencies across devices which affect how the text renders on your device. Unicode is script based, which means it includes multiple characters that may or may not be used in the languages that use the script in question (like ळ, which does not exist in Hindi). It also includes archaic characters and junk characters. A standardized character sets does a lot to remove these inconsistencies.  

By mandating uniform character sets for each language, junk characters and various other font inconsistencies are dealt with, and display and rendering issues are resolved.

The date for the mandate’s roll-out however, has been pushed back time after time. The government announced that the date for compliance with the mandate will be Feb 1st, 2018.

Relief For Tens Of Millions Of Indians

Somewhere along the line, being able to effortlessly use the internet and your smartphone became a privilege only afforded to English users. The rest of India has had to wait, unceremoniously excluded, for over a decade. But not for much longer.

This mandate will come as relief to hundreds of millions of phone users across the country, half of whom own devices that are non compliant with Indic languages. This massive chunk of Indians left without the ability to take advantage of what the internet or their smartphone has to offer will finally see some respite. Half the country’s phone users literally have next to no clue what information they’re receiving on their phone, since it’s all in a language they do not know, an elite language – English.

A Catalyst For Indic Language Content Growth

With access to the internet becoming less intimidating, and more democratic, India’s internet user base will see a robust growth in the coming years, a growth that will translate into increased demand for Indic language content and services available in Indic languages.

Within a year of the mandate’s release, devices that support Indic languages will cross the 50% mark and form the majority of devices in circulation. With every passing quarter, that percentage will steadily climb. Bringing with it an increase in Indic content and support across apps and website, creating a multiplier effect.

Investors are realizing the potential of Indic content platforms, and with support for Indic languages becoming mandated, these platforms will receive a shot in the arm. According to a Google-KPMG study, demand for services in Indic languages is very high amongst Indian internet users, most of whom use the internet in their own language.

Unanswered Questions

While the mandate has covered the display and character set issues users have been facing, that is merely one piece of the whole puzzle. Actual user experience is equal parts user input and user output. Mandatory support for correctly displaying Indic texts is a giant step forward, but it is merely the first step of a much longer journey.

The next step? Guidelines for typing and editing Indic text.

The principles involved Indic typing are vastly different from those in normal, Latin based typing. Which is only logical, as Indic scripts are vastly different from the Latin script itself. The Latin script is an alphabet, and is linear. Most Indic scripts are abugidas, while Indian languages that use the Perso Arabic script are abjads, and vowel diacritics are added to base characters to change their pronunciation. This is without taking into account consonant ligatures, like क्ष (क् + ष) and க்ஷ (க் + ஷ) in Devanagari and Tamil respectively!

Similarly, editing Indic text brings with it its own set of challenges. Even something as simple as deleting text works differently in Indic characters. For example, how do things work when you delete a vowel diacritic or part of a conjunct character?

The mandate does not answer these questions, unfortunately.

As a result, the issues with computing and editing in Indic languages are still yet to be resolved. The ICA, whom we associated with, is of the same opinion.

With the mandate only addressing some of the issues Indic language users face, India has only begun its journey towards greater language equality on the internet.

We still have a long way to go.

Stay tuned for more posts in our series.

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