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BW Businessworld

A Phone To Call My Own

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In the course of every day gadget reviewing, i’m more likely to get excited by a good camera on a phone than I am with support for yet another Indian language. But it’s when I had a look at a Gujarati phone from a company called MoFirst that I had to admit this was big.

Until now, regionalising a mobile phone in India has meant putting in keyboards for a bunch of languages. The CEO of MoFirst, Rakesh Deshmukh, showed me how and why one needed to go much more beyond that.

His company’s phone uses Android as a base OS and even has a regular Play Store option and the Google apps typically used. But the operating system, called Firstouch, has been customised deeply to thread the Gujarati language through and through. Why not just make do with language keyboards, which should, after all, get the job done? Keyboards just by themselves can still be very fiddly, needing you to switch from one mode to another just to put in the characters needed which are not part of the English style of typing.

The input method has been evolved on this phone to include predictive ‘matras’ or the vowel nuancing present in Indian languages. That speeds thing up a fair bit. About 60 per cent, in fact, according to Deshmukh. And having the language throughout the system just feels like it naturally belongs to that language. For those who are first-time phone users or switching from feature phones to touch phones, this reduces the complexity.

To take this feeling further, the Firstouch phone has a bunch of static icons on the home screen, placed there because they’re seen to be the most likely to be used by the target audience. Touching these icons generates voice feedback, instantly letting the user know what he or she is doing. Pressing the number keys on the dialer also has voice feedback, though this feature can be switched off. The same is the case for alphabets. Great for the elderly, the not-so-literate, and the absolute newbie. Though apparently, it isn’t the bottom of the pyramid that’s taken to the Firstouch phones being initially tried out, but it includes young people in tier-2 cities.
There’s also a Gujarati app store or ‘App Bazar’. The idea is to have the whole ecosystem in the selected language. When Firstouch phones in other languages are launched later this year, these too will have app stores in those languages. Apps are selected to reflect the interests and needs of the culture.

One of the best features of the Firstouch system is that it allows for one-swipe translation. The user types in Gujarati, reaches out and swipes, and the text goes off, say, in a message in English. When an English reply comes in, a swipe translates it back to Gujarati. The next step is to allow voice input for this, reading out text, and possibly translation between other languages. Machine translation can, of course, never be a hundred per cent like the real thing as that’s something that hasn’t been cracked yet for any language, but it’s enough to make sense of the message.

Using a browser that supports the language, this sort of translation can be used to post to social networks quite easily as well.

The Firstouch phone has modest specs, but worked fast enough with translation. The price for this particular phone is Rs 6,000, bringing it within the reach of those who could really find it useful for their everyday needs. Ten more phones are already planned, spanning Rs 3,500 to 12,500 and in different Indian languages.

MoFirst figured out the complexity of bringing a language to a phone when they worked to create a similar device for Burma, whose language had no support on Android and didn’t even have an available font to work with. 

Quite obviously it would be empowering if such smartphones, tailored to the needs of a community, were to bring connectivity to more Indians — just as long as they’re thought through enough to meet needs instead of throwing features at users who then must figure out what to do with them.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-07-2014)