The Next Billion: Multilingual Users and Mobile Telephony

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 26 January 2005

Why the mobile industry needs to learn the world’s struggling languages.

Even today’s most guarded estimates indicate that half of the world’s 6000 languages will likely be extinct by the year 2050. A decidedly more catastrophic prediction from researchers at the University of Manchester now places that number closer to 90%. Because mobile phones aren’t yet universal interpreters, we should be concerned – not simply in the interest of preserving cultural heritage and diversity, but also because minority language communities represent some of the most potentially valuable markets still underserved by the mobile industry. Think Africa, deep Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.

The problem for advocates of language conservation is that there’s little concrete evidence that a decline in the number of languages would be directly detrimental to the human race. Several recent books have attempted to address the ramifications of this phenomenon, including David Crystal’s Language Death as well as Daniel Nettle’s and Suzanne Romaine’s Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. However, as much as we can commend these authors for their passion and concern, when it comes to the question of why we should care, they have little to offer beyond speculation and tenuous analogies.

It may be surprising that the most compelling rationale for language preservation comes from the market itself – the very market being blamed for language extinction in the first place.

Many mobile markets are stagnating, already saturated with phones and consumers who are underwhelmed by new services. Each next big thing more often amounts to a big disappointment, leading many users to adopt the strategy of just sticking with what they’ve already got. Besides the ever-popular voice service, text and ringtones are carrying the mobile industry.

Recognizing the mammoth, continuing appeal of these services, why is it that some communities are still left waiting for mobile devices that speak their language and speak to their culture? Providers who resort to a one-language-fits-all strategy are throwing away tremendous revenue opportunities by discounting the needs, wants and enthusiasm of minority language and cultural communities.

For a hint of the opportunity here, look at the early success of the Ilkone model 800, the first mobile phone with built-in prayer times, Qiblah direction and the full, searchable text of the Holy Koran targeting the the Islamic world. While Arabic is hardly a language in peril, this appeal to potential new users via their own culture, religion and vernacular appears to be the best strategy for bringing new technologies to otherwise resistant markets. Simply bring the mountain to Mohammed.

Fortunately, a forward-thinking, new alliance called MuLiMob (short for Multilingual & Mobile) has taken it upon itself to convince the European mobile industry of the as-yet-unrecognized potential for addressing local languages. Through a series of workshops, consultations and other events, they’re on a mission “to enhance the wireless community’s awareness of multilingual and multicultural mobile services and application issues; to stimulate a rapid take up of innovative ideas, within the whole mobile value chain, for user-friendly and cost effective multilingual services for mobile users; and to identify issues and problems that need further research, applications or solutions.”

Essentially, with this exhaustive, 16-month research project, MuLiMob hopes to demonstrate with concrete data the value of offering tailored services to minority language communities.

By that time, of course, the smartest players will already be addressing these communities. While solid numbers always help, we shouldn’t need a report to recognize just how profitable customization has already become, and how to apply these principles to entire cultures. Consumers’ intense appetite for personalized content and services is absolutely emblematic of the importance cultural and personal identities play in this market. These are handheld, personal communications devices, after all. Cell phones are to these new global users what cars are to Americans: an extension of self.

That’s why popular culture and majority languages can only take the trend so far. To reach the next billion users, it’s time to go deep.

For those who speak a minority language, that language becomes an integral part of their identity. Music, which is equally inseparable from culture, is just as central to one’s understanding and presentation of self. In most mobile phone markets worldwide, we find that people want their phone to reflect their identity and interests, be it with ringtones, graphics, ornaments, faceplates or even the games and services they download. Catering content and services to the thousands of minority language communities languishing in now-stagnant markets may be the next major step the wireless industry needs to take in order to boost sales and revenue to the next level.

In order for this to actually happen, MuLiMob plans to bring together “technology platform providers, handset manufacturers, application developers, content providers and aggregators, mobile portal providers, location based specialists, mobile network operators as well as the end mobile user,” – basically, the entire industry – to etch out some formal strategies.

For certain, the steps necessary to make such services a reality will require some industry cooperation, but the situation is hardly daunting. Voice is obviously not a problem though audio menus for voicemail and other such tasks would require some simple translations. As far as text messaging and text-based menus are concerned, a number of phones already support the Unicode standard and thus, theoretically at least, should be able to understand and display hundreds of different languages. Furthermore, Tegic’s popular T9 predictive text input software now supports 45 languages and more are on the way.

Nokia seems to have taken a step toward addressing the Chinese dilemma with its new pen-based 6108 handset, a device designed and engineered in its Chinese facilities. It would be a relatively straightforward operation to extend this solution to other scripts that don’t lend themselves well to thumb tapping. Ringtones and graphics are far less complicated to produce, of course, but could drive revenue up significantly. They might present the ideal starting point to demonstrate the market potential of minority language and cultural communities.

Plausibly, if services for some of the larger minority language groups are developed first, any economic barriers would further diminish with each successive language. But this project needs to begin somewhere, and soon. One of the primary reasons minority language communities are disappearing so rapidly now is precisely because global businesses so readily dismiss them. So let’s not forget that language and culture are the true content of mobile phones. And, moreover, it’s going to be in the mobile industry’s interests to invest in these communities and the active, continued use of these languages. After all, why use an interactive device if it can’t really express who you are?

Indeed, cell phones may only become universal when their makers acknowledge the particular people using them.