Policy brief for Indian Language Support in Mobile devices
Anivar A Aravind
Prepared for ICFOSS and Swathanthra Malayalam Computing as a part of DIT-ICFOSS R&D project and submited to DieTy in January 2015
Indian language support in mobile devices is a major segment that helps Indian's to bridge digital divide . The growth of Mobile devices and smart phone market already proved it is the the best way available at this point to bridge digital divide . As per the recent study reports in March 2014, 89% percent of Indian population uses a mobile phone and 10% of the population uses a smart phone (13% of total mobile users) . It is pretty clear that unlike most other countries, India will be a “mobile-first” country because the first computing device for most Indians will be the mobile and not the PC. This is the importance of Indian language support on mobile devices t address the question of digital divide. But unavailability of Indian Language interfaces, keyboards and fonts limits freedom of expression of people in their native languages and prevents from tapping the full potential offered by these devices. Indian language support in Mobile devices enables people's access to Indian language knowledge repositories, e-governance services and help freedom of expression in their native languages , a fundamental right assured by the constitution.
This document shares the domain expertise of Swathanthra Malayalam Computing's(SMC) on Indian Language computing computing and experience from joint effort with ICFOSS in Android Indian Language Support component in DIT-ICFOSS R&D Project. SMC is constantly observing and intervening in the growth of Indian language support in Android devices in past 3 years and also works with upcoming mobile operating systems like Firefox OS in deciding Indian language features. While this document is prepared from this experience , the policy recommendations are not limited to Android and applicable for all smart phones and tablets.
Indian Language support in Mobile devices – Current Status
Fonts and Language Support
Hindi was the only Indian language interface supported in Android devices prior to version 4.1 . But there was fonts for Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam in official android Rom . Many vendors like Samsung developed fonts for more indian languages and included it in their versions distributing in India . Samsung in 2013 August 15th announced support for 9 Indian language interfaces too. Android 4.3 Introduced Indian language fonts for 9 languages . Later Samsung started supporting 13 languages in their all phones in India and Micromax started supporting 20 languages in their one special devices . But many popular device manufacturers like Micromax, Huawei, Karbonn, Sony etc. are stripping even google provided Indian language fonts and locales from their phones to reduce the space requirement for built-in firmware , effectively preventing access and ability to read any content in Indian languages . Installing fonts separately need rooting of mobile devices , which needs expertise and that process effectively void the warranty of the device . So common people prevented from accessing Indian language content on Smart phone if their device manufacturer stripped font support from the device. ICFOSS maintains a curated list of Indian language fonts suitable for mobile devices. The newly introduced Android One supports 9 Indian Languages . Android's new version 5.0 includes support for Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu in addition to Hindi .
In Mozilla's Firefox OS , Indian language support is pretty good at 2.0+ versions , But they introduced 1.3 version in the products launched in India. This device only supports Hindi and Tamil apart from English interfaces. The device manufacturers stripped fonts for other languages in these phones preventing ability of buyer to read Indian language content . Iphone and Windows Phones coming with few Indian language fonts, but Indian language interfaces are not supported.
Local Language Interfaces
While interface is supported in some versions and some devices in limited level , translations of interfaces is done by companies via third party translations in most cases resulting in inconstancy between various mobile phones for same technical terms . Firefox OS adopts community review of translations, but device manufacturers have freedom to choose or drop those translations.
As a part of DIT-ICFOSS R&D project ICFOSS and SMC worked on preparing community reviewed Frequently Used Entries in Localization for Mobile (FUEL-Mobile) Modules for Hindi , Malayalam and Kannada in association with FUELproject. FUEL is suggested as a best practice for Mobile Localization by E-governance standards . CDAC, ICFOSS, SMC and Redhat have significant involvement with FUELProject . FUEL enables consistency in translations , which helps govt or industry to provide mobile usage howto for various contexts in easy steps.
Support for Indian Language keyboards was major problem when we start working on Android devices . Now with Indic Keyboard, developed as a part of DIT-ICFOSS R&D Project supports 14 Indian Languages and all popular layouts in these languages. This project acts as the upstream project for popular Indian language mobile input methods. Most of the devices in India coming without an Indian Languge keyboard and users has to install them separately . If keyboards are not included in firmware , user has to install it for inputting Indian languages using mobile phone
Indian Language rendering is near perfect in Android 4.3+ devices and Firefox OS devices now . The effort of Swathanthra Malayalam Computing in fixing Indian language rendering in Harfbuzz project , free and open source rendering engine resulted in these changes . Rendering is an area which need continuous involvement . Without that Indian language support may break in future versions .
Apps & Content
While Indian Languages are supported in Mobile operating system level, Apps are not started supporting Indian languages well . Many popular Apps (eg Newshunt) are using non standard non Unicode custom hacks to display Indian language content. Many Industry players such as Google started building industry alliances in Indian language space to bundle services with Indian language content access with Android.
- There is a need for formulating a policy mandating the the inclusion of Indian language fonts of all official languages recognized as per 8th schedule of the constitution in all smart phones and tablets selling in India .
- Indian Language Interfaces for all official languages need to be mandated for all smart phones and tablets selling in India. Translation compatibility with frequently used entries in mobile localization (FUEL-Mobile) using existing Fuelproject need to be assured by the device manufacturers.
- Inclusion of at-least one Indian language keyboard per language need to be assured for all smart phones and tablets selling in India.
- Technology policies and mission mode project on E-bhasha need to encourage developments and adoption of Indian language free and open source technology frameworks such as libindic.org .
- All software developments funded by government must be licensed under compatible free software licenses and released. The releases must match with the release cycles of respective Mobile operating systems, to make them relevant with mobile OS in market.