Software maker Microsoft, Internet giant Google go local to drive up numbers

By James Ratemo

You do not have to understand English to navigate the computer.

Kiswahili is just sufficient, at least as seen in a new approach that software and Internet Search Engine firms are taking to break down barriers.

The move will undoubtedly increase access to technology on the continent.

Software giant Microsoft last week launched its latest Windows 7 operating system in Kiswahili in a move intended to allow more Africans access a broader range of its software.

This will benefit an estimated 150 million people in Kenya and parts of Africa who speak Kiswahili.

Data from the body charged with administration of domain names (www.ICANN.org), show that organisations and individuals alike appreciate the potential of local domain names, i.e. dot KE (.KE) over the Generic Top Level Domains (GTLD’s) like .com, or .org.

This fact is gradually informing the adoption of local languages in software and presentation of Internet resources.

To tap into the ongoing regional integration and growing prominence of local languages on the Internet, leading Internet search engine, Google launched local versions of its web-based e-mail platform and Internet browsers in East Africa.

The company, which operates the largest Internet search engine http://www.google.com, launched Gmail, Google Maps and Google Chrome, bringing Kiswahili to each of these platforms.

In October 2004, Google launched a Kiswahili language service to be accessed through the .ke domain name.

The hyperlink http://www.google.co.ke was the 103rd country-specific domain name to be acquired by Google Inc.

Research has shown that Internet users are naturally inclined to search for content in their local language.

However, this has not been the case in Kenya because Kiswahili or other native languages have been missing from the web, leaving English to dominate.

Today, the main http://www.google.com website recognises access from a user located in Kenya and provides a link to Google Kenya (google.co.ke) and not the global google.com.

In fact, typing http://www.google.com while in Kenya automatically redirects one to http://www.google.co.ke. In Uganda, a user will be directed to http://www.google.co.ug.

Going to http://www.google.co.ke presents an option to search in Kiswahili just as http://www.google.de (Germany) gives option to search in Deutsch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In Uganda, besides English and Kiswahili, http://www.google.co.ug also gives options to navigate the site in several other local languages including Luganda, Luo, Runyakitara, and Kinyarwanda. The same is true in South Africa where the site runs different language interface.

Kiswahili in technology and Internet will be even more useful for Kiswahili scholars who have had limited reference resources online as most operating systems have been configured in languages other than Kiswahili.

Growing popularity

Better still, Luis Otieno, Microsoft General Manager for East and Southern Africa said the Windows 7 Kiswahili interface pack is available online for free. As a result, the usual barriers of cost to technology will not prohibit the Kiswahili speaker from accessing the software.

Kiswahili is a national language in Kenya and is increasingly becoming popular across East Africa and beyond.

In Tanzania, Kiswahili is mandatory and the East African Community has already endorsed it as one of its official languages.

The African Union is also contemplating adopting Kiswahili as an official language alongside English, French and other international languages.

While its reach was growing, Kiswahili largely remained on the periphery of technology – itself a catalyst of revolution.

“We believe technology has an increasingly important role to play in the maintenance of linguistic diversity, not only to promote mutual understanding and dialogue, but also to strengthen local economies,” says Otieno.

“All too often, communities are excluded from IT skills, and the accompanying job opportunities for lack of technology in their local language,” he says, adding that these are the challenges Windows 7 Swahili version is aimed at addressing.”

“The IT outlook in the region is impressive. In the next two to three months, we are also going to avail Kiswahili version of Windows 2010, this will boost consumption of various IT products currently being developed.”

The software maker also revealed plans to launch its Office 10 commercial suite of applications in Kiswahili soon.

“Over 150 million Kiswahili speakers in Africa will now have access to technology in a language they understand better. This is a step towards maintaining the linguistic diversity of the world’s people,” says Otieno.

Learn faster

Lydia Nzomo, Director of Kenya Institute of Education, says Windows 7 in Kiswahili would offer children access to technology in a language they understand, and help them learn faster.

To attain the feat, Microsoft worked with Baraza la Kiswahili Tanzania and the University of Dar-es-Salaam to put together the Kiswahili version of the Windows 7 operating to power millions of computers across Kiswahili-speaking region in Africa.

The project also brought in professionals from Kenya and Uganda. According to experts, the localisation of the software will increase content from Africa by allowing expression in the Kiswahili language, which is widely spoken in the region.

Besides entrenching the company’s position on the continent, Otieno says use of local language interface would also develop and preserve African languages, most of which are at risk of extinction.

Mark Matunga, Education and Citizenship Programme Manager for Microsoft East and Southern Africa, has previously said Windows 7 will also be “availed in nine other African languages to increase usage, fight software piracy, increase use of local languages online and drive computer penetration beyond English and French.”

Before end of this year, Microsoft promised, Windows 7 will also be available in languages such as Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, Isixhosa, Isizulu, Afrikaans, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and Amharic.

Google is a step ahead with some of its products including Gmail and Maps already running local language interface including Afrikaans, Sesotho, IsiXhosa, and Setswana of South Africa.

These developments coincide with ongoing strengthening of the East Africa Community Common Market, a milestone for the people of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The integration will ease movement of people, and capital in the region.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s