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Cultivating consumers in rural India

Miranda Kennedy Oct 17, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Software companies in India have been reporting pretty good profits this week. Pretty good as in almost 50 percent increases. Wondering why that matters to you? One word. Outsourcing. As long as it’s profitable, on both sides of the equation, it’s going to continue.

A lot of American companies have been setting up product research centers in India. But what happens in those labs isn’t exactly outsourcing. Manufacturing products for U.S. consumers. They’re trying to create new products to sell to a new market. Rural, mostly uneducated Indians. Miranda Kennedy visited the Hewlett-Packard labs in Bangalore.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Shekhar Gorgankar is trying to type his name in Hindi. It’s India’s national language, but it’s not exactly computer friendly.

SHEKHAR GORGANKAR: So this is a keyboard for Hindi, which is an overlay on the English qwerty keyboard.

KENNEDY: Have you learned how to do this?

GORGANKAR: I can do it slowly, I can do it like . . . Shekhar.

KENNEDY: First try, nope. Second try, nope . . .

Hindi is phonetic, like all 17 official Indian languages. To write the whole Hindi alphabet you would need 1,500 keys. That means using two to three keys just to make one character. So even an HP technician like Shekhar hasn’t learned how to do it.

KENNEDY: So it takes a long time to write in Hindi.

GORGANKAR: You have to get these 1,500 keywords by either alt, control shift, so that’s the problem.

The complexities of the Hindi language are the heart of the problem for companies that want to sell technology here. The reason is, fewer than 10 percent of Indians speak English. So, to sell to the rest of the population, you need to come up with technology in their local languages. Ajay Gupta, the head of HP Labs in India, says about a billion customers use HP products worldwide.

AJAY GUPTA: We are saying OK, where are our next billion customers going to come from? And we believe the large majority of these customers are going to come from high growth markets such as India.

Five hundred million Indians have some capacity to consume, but don’t yet use any technology, other than a cell phone or a TV. Gupta thinks that’s going to change.

GUPTA: The example I like to give is a color television costs $300, a PC costs $250. There are three times more color televisions sold in India than PCs. And the reason for that is obvious-people know what to do with a color television, they don’t know what to do with a PC.

HP decided the first step towards showing people what to do with it was to create a less awkward way to type in Hindi. Their solution is called the “gesture keyboard.” It lets you write in Hindi on an electronic tablet hooked up to the computer.

KENNEDY: So this is the new thing, this is the new gesture keyboard. So in that little box in the corner of the screen, oh, it shows what you’re writing and then it immediately reads it. So, some software is reading it, and then it comes out on the Microsoft document.

After that, it’s easy enough to start “gesturing” your way through the Web, in any Indian language.

And Wikipedia and Google are prepared. Their Hindi-language sites already await the new crop of computer users.

In Bangalore, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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