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Localization²: Selling the 21st Century Across the Digital Divide

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Arle Lommel, LISA Publications ManagerMost of us live in a 21st century society with easy access to information and entertainment when we want it, where we want it. We grumble when we go to a conference hotel and have to use a modem to get our e-mail (how archaic is that?), and we complain when our cell phones don’t work on the “wrong” side of the Atlantic (I won’t give my opinion as to which side that might be). Our clients want the impossible done yesterday, and they want to pay less for it than they paid for the merely possible a few years back.

Much of the world, however, makes less money in a year than we spend entertaining a client or business partner for one night, and lives a lifestyle that we would find utterly baffling since our own ancestors last lived that way in the 1800’s. I write this last sentence worried that it could be read as a paean to progress and advancement in culture in the so-called First World, but I mean anything but that. Our technology can easily lead us to ignore the realities of the world around us and to lose sight of our common kinship with those in the “Third World.” If we are focused on downloading our email and panic at the thought of being out of touch with the home office for 24 hours (how many of us secretly check our email even on our days off lest we miss something important?), how can we relate to that part of the world that has never heard of email and never even used a telephone?

There are those who are trying to connect the Third World with the First World, under the theory that riches and opportunity do not determine the value of people. Examples include the Gyandoot project that I have discussed before and Gentium. Another example I recently ran across is the PCtvt project, a project that has some similarities to Gyandoot, but which takes a different approach to reaching the Third World with information technology. Raj Reddy, the creator of the PCtvt, observed the failure of most governmental and NGO efforts to provide computers to the Third World, identifying the high cost of PCs as the major obstacle: it was simply too expensive to provide (i.e., donate) PCs to the huge population of potential users in the Third World. Reddy’s idea is to sell PCs in the poorer areas (in India, Africa and China initially). But how could he sell PCs to people making less than $500/year? Surely no one would choose to buy a PC when it would cost more than a family might make in a year.

Reddy’s solution is to treat the Third World as a market like any other, and not as a special place in the world that would demand special treatment. He observed that people in rural India would often sacrifice considerable amounts to purchase TVs and other entertainment devices. Given the low income levels, would it be possible to create a device that would provide access to the advantages of modern digital technology and be desirable to Indian families? If the goal were to supply typical desktop PCs, the answer was clearly no: PCs were simply too expensive, and also fairly useless to the largely illiterate population Reddy wanted to reach. The solution, then, was to design a device that would meet the needs of that particular market. This meant a product radically different from a desktop PC, an example of radical localization of the PC concept.

The resulting product, the PCtvt, would combine TV, video recorder and telephone functionality with advanced computer capabilities such as video mail (email is useless if the recipient can’t read it). The PCtvt would cost approximately $250 and would connect to the Internet via low-cost wireless connections (it would cost about $500 to link a village to the Internet using new low cost technologies being developed at the University of California, Berkeley).

Because of the still (relatively) high cost, Reddy envisions multiple users sharing PCtvt units, and therefore the primary memory would be USB keys on which users would store their information, rather than the machine’s hard drive. The user interface for the PCtvt would be radically simplified to allow users to perform common tasks, while still providing sufficient power to be flexible and useful. This simplification would not lead to an underpowered machine. In fact, the opposite would be true: an article in the Post-Gazette quotes Reddy as saying, “A person who is illiterate needs more computing power and more bandwidth than a PhD. They need 100 times more bandwidth, 100 times more memory. This is counterintuitive to most people.”

Whether the PCtvt project will succeed or not remains to be seen, but Reddy is on the right track. Bridging the Digital Divide demands, in part, the flexibility and willingness to adapt to local conditions, as exemplified by the PCtvt and Gyandoot projects. This adaptation is localization, but of a kind we generally aren’t familiar with. It might be termed “localization2” (localization squared).

Although we generally state that the goal of localization is to “adapt a product or service so that it is as if it were made in the target locale” (or something like this), that is not in fact the real goal in most cases: the goal is to make a product acceptable enough to sell in a given market. Does a Dell PC sold in Japan really look like something a Japanese designer would have come up with? Does a service manual for a U.S.-made copy machine sold in Russia really look and read like a Russian designed and wrote it? Maybe, or maybe not, but that is really immaterial to the goal of localization.

In the case of localization2, the goal is different: it is to localize a concept for a specific market. Take the PC and transplant it to India: what would you keep, what would be different? A $1200 PC won’t work, so what would? The result, be it Gyandoot, Simputer (another contender for the Indian market) or PCtvt, will be something very different from what would by purchased in the U.S. I call this localization2 because it combines localization as it is normally defined (interface, documentation, etc.) with localization of a concept. Localization2 turns out to be a far more complex task than either kind of localization on its own, but it is this sort of localization that is needed to address the Digital Divide.

So what is our contribution to this? We can simplify the process of localization2 by making sure that the processes and architecture we develop support the needs of smaller or poorer markets. In the case of PCtvt, Microsoft is providing a simplified version of Windows to run the devices. If Microsoft had not developed international capabilities in its Windows software, Reddy’s team would have had to come up with its own operating system (or adapt another one) and make sure that it had the requisite international capabilities, adding time and expense to the project (and perhaps making it impossible to deliver for the targeted price). As I mentioned in my article on Gyandoot, what we do descends to the level of infrastructure, and then becomes the enabling factor for projects and technologies we cannot anticipate, but which are an important outgrowth of our efforts.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
10 December 2004, Volume XIII, Issue 4.2.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider: www.localization.org, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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