As mobile phones reach more of India's gigantic population, one of the challenges facing both users and service providers is the country's linguistic diversity.
The number of mobile users in India has grown explosively to more than 900 million today from about 4 million in 2001, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Most of the handsets available in the market feature qwerty keypads that are easy to use for the country's urban, English-speaking population. But these keypads could be tricky for many others in rural areas who speak only regional languages.
While many rural Indians who don't have fixed-line phones at home use their cellphones for voice calls, lack of support for local languages on mobile phones often prevents them from using text messages, address books, Internet browsers and other mobile applications that require them to type letters as well as numbers.
India has 22 major languages, with nine different scripts. Each script is represented by scores of characters. Typing each character on a basic mobile phone involves multiple tappings on the keypad, which can be cumbersome.
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Analysts say some of the latest models of smartphones to be launched—such as Research In Motion Ltd.'s RIM.T -10.08% BlackBerry 10—use new technologies that make texting easier and quicker. It may be a while before such technologies are made available on affordable low-end devices.
In India, one technology to support easy typing in local languages on inexpensive handsets was developed by former army officer Abhijit Bhattacharjee.
In 2008, Mr. Bhattacharjee's start-up, Luna Ergonomics Pvt. Ltd., one of the 12 finalists for The Wall Street Journal's Asian Innovation Awards, developed a virtual keypad software for mobile phones, using predictive technology that lets users input words using their local languages.
"The prevailing technology to support typing in any language on the phone was multitap," Mr. Bhattacharjee says.
"We wanted to reduce the efforts drastically and also support all the languages."
Mr. Bhattacharjee developed a virtual keypad based on software that tries to constantly predict the characters the user wants. The keypad, dubbed "Panini Keypad," is named after the Sanskrit grammarian Panini and allows multiple languages to be supported on a single phone.
"Texting has not picked up in a big way in India, especially in rural areas, where multi-language support on handsets could be a differentiator," says G. Rajeev, a senior market analyst with research firm IDC Inc.
The predictions are derived from mining the statistical correlation within the language. A large amount of text in each language is mined to arrive at such linguistic predictions, Mr. Bhattacharjee says.
In 2010, the company raised $500,000 from six angel investors to invest in its products. By then Luna Ergonomics had developed the software in nine major Indian languages.
Pankaj Agrwal, a 52-year-old independent chartered accountant, says he finds it convenient and affordable to use the Panini Keypad to send text messages in the Hindi language, which is based on Devanagari script.
Mr. Bhattacharjee says the company is now planning to develop software that gives a grammatical insight into the words that users input.
The virtual-keypad software is now available in 24 languages across the world, including Arabic, Russian and Swahili, Mr. Bhattacharjee says. This software can be downloaded to mobile phones for a nominal fee.
The company is also talking to several telecom-service providers in India to offer the software as a value-added service, he says, declining to elaborate.
MoMagic makes the language software compatible with MediaTek chip sets. The partnership aims to sell this software to those low-end handset suppliers that use the MediaTek chip sets. The low-end device makers have already flooded the Indian cellphone market with a number of inexpensive handsets.
"In the Indian context, local languages are critical," says Arun Gupta, the founder and chief executive of MoMagic. He says the company decided to partner with Luna Ergonomics to tap into the market for low-end handsets, which are largely sold in areas where regional languages are spoken.
But IDC's Mr. Rajeev says that basic cellphones available in the market today aren't capable of porting such additional software. "Their processor capacities are often found wanting when performing scaled-up functions," he says.
Still, Mr. Bhattacharjee says the joint venture with MoMagic has developed a prototype of a basic cellphone that uses the chip set with embedded language software, and it runs smoothly.
The partnership has also joined up with a handset supplier, who uses the MediaTek chip sets that have the language software embedded.