A few months ago, Samsung, the world's foremost smartphone manufacturer, announced its Galaxy range would support nine Indian languages. The move was indicative of the need to tap consumers beyond metros.
The reasons are compelling: India is the world's second-largest mobile market. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data, India had 873 million mobile phone subscribers as of June. And, 80-85 per cent of the revenue telecom players generated was through voice services. Compare this with China, where the non-voice segment accounted for 44 per cent of all revenue, registering growth of 53 per cent in January-February.
Of India's mobile phone users, about 500 million don't speak English. These subscribers primarily use mobile phones for voice services. Despite this, 90 per cent of the content on the digital platform is in English, and this is accessed by just about a tenth of the total users.
The language conundrum
The regional language support market is pegged at $3.5-4 billion a year, growing at a compounded annual rate of 30 per cent. Acceptance of Indian languages on the digital platform faces a chicken-and-egg situation - while telecom companies blame the lack of content and inability of equipment makers to build language support, equipment makers say Indian languages are too difficult to be incorporated into handsets India has 22 official languages in 11 scripts, with each having its own unique features.
The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) has been developing and filing patents related to local languages. Though it also works with the private sector, most of its services are used by state governments. Though there are several other companies in this segment, few have tasted success.
Change in the air
Bangalore-based Reverie is trying to change this. Founded in 2009, the company provides regional language capabilities to makers of mobile phones, tablets, set-top boxes, etc, as well as application developers.
The company was founded by S K Mohanty, Arvind Pani and Vivekananda Pani. Mohanty and Pani have about 40 years of experience in language computing; earlier, they were involved with C-DAC.
Reverie isn't the first company to try its hand at solving the language puzzle. Global companies such as Nuance and domestic ones such as Panini Keypad & C-DAC have been working on that for years. As co-founder and chief executive Arvind puts it, what makes Reverie unique is that it is "an end-to-end solutions provider. It is not just about the tools and technology available for creating fonts but how you create fonts that are aesthetically rich, even on a low-end device. After all, user experience is the key to the adoption of any application or technology".
Arvind realised there was a market for local language capability as early as 2000-2001. "But then, mobile phone usage hadn't picked up much, though I had discussed the need for such offerings with Vivek," he says.
It was only in 2009 that the trio decided to set up Reverie Technologies. The initial phase was devoted to bootstrapping. The next two years, the team focused on creating tools and solutions. In 2011, the founders bagged the Qualcomm QPrize, worth $100,000. "This was extremely useful for us, as it helped us invest in taking the product to the market and commercialising it," said Arvind. This was also significant as it helped Reverie bring its first customer, Qualcomm, on board.
Since then, the company has raised its customer base to 12. Samsung is using Reverie's tools to power its language capability feature. Reverie has also powered Micromax's language-support feature for the company's Rs 5,000-range phones. Plustxt, a leading multi-lingual text messaging platform, also uses Reverie's software. Prominent media houses such as The Express Group and Jagran Group have tied up with the company to use its language solutions.
Reverie has filed for four patents and about 20 design copyrights. The company can provide support in 50 languages, of which 22 are Indian. It has also developed software to support difficult languages such as Arabic.
Reverie expects to clock revenue of Rs 5-6 crore for FY14. "For the next three years, we see 100 per cent growth for the company. We are in the process of raising series-A funding in the next four-six months. We do see ourselves in an investment mode for sometime," Arvind says. He is confident the company would break even by 2015-16.
Raising funds hasn't been a cakewalk for the founders. "When we talk to investors, the biggest challenge is the fact that though the market is huge, there is no precedence of a success story. Considering past examples have not been good, fund manager feel local languages aren't in demand," Arvind says.
The other challenge is the mindset. "The moment we talk about local languages, it is assumed we are talking about tier-III and -IV cities. But I think the ecosystem is coming into play. Operators are talking about local language content; device makers are ready to support, too," he adds.
Reverie has been generating enough cash to take care of daily operations as well as invest in research & development (R&D). So far, the company has stuck to a business-to-business model. It works directly with device makers, so that its solutions are part of the handsets when these are ready to be shipped. It also works with app developers and content providers.
In terms of revenue, the company gets licence fees or royalty for every device that has its solutions (installed or sold). So far, it has an installation base of 750,000-800,000; it expects this to touch 10 million in 15-18 months.
In case of application developers, Reverie has a language-as-a-service platform. It either charges per-download or has a subscription model. It also works on a revenue-sharing model. So far, the company has clocked 200,000-250,000 downloads.
Industry players say the Indian local language market presents a huge opportunity. "Since we are taking technology to the masses, it is important we move beyond the 150-million English-speaking population in India. Content consumption would be crucial for device makers and telecom players," says Shashin Devasare, executive director, Karbonn.
Karbonn is working with chipset makers and technology firms to ensure local language capabilities are built into its handsets. "We do work with third-party vendors for local language support. Going ahead, we are looking at players that can bring in some predictive and intuitiveness into solutions," adds Devasare.
Mahesh Kulkarni, assistant director and head of department at C-DAC, says though the local language opportunity in India is big, it is fragmented and needs standardisation. "Take any format other than mobile, such as TV or newspaper, regional language consumption is much higher than English. Despite that, the uptake on the mobile front is dismal. The reason is partly unavailability of content and user-friendly tools for access to local languages and, of course, awareness," he says.
There is enough room for companies such as Reverie because of the market opportunity, he says, adding the challenge would be staying updated with technology versions.
Arvind says investment in R&D will be crucial for the company. "It is a difficult balance between R&D and customer satisfaction. At present, we are focused on the latter," he says. But going ahead, he expects 25-30 per cent of the company's revenue or the funds it would raise would go towards product development.
Now, Arvind, along with Vivekananda and Mohanty, is already working on the text-to-speech platform for local languages.
EYEING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE MARKET
Reverie provides regional language capabilities to device manufacturers for mobile phones, tablets, set-top boxes, as well as application developers
About 500 million mobile users in India are non-English speaking; they primarily use mobile phones for voice services
Today, about 90 per cent of the content on the digital platform is in English; language content can push use of applications, non-voice services for telcos
With the large base of mobile consumers and the multiplicity of languages these consumers use, there is a need to deliver services in local languages
Turnover: Expected to touch revenue of Rs 5-6 cr for FY14
In the process of raising their first series-A fund
Qualcomm QPrize worth $100,000 gave them initial funding
Filed for four patents and 20-plus design copyrights
Capability of supporting 50 global languages, of which 22 are Indian.
Reverie solutions has installation base of 750,000-800,000; to touch 10 million in 15-18 months
Reverie is a highly innovative company, solving a potentially large problem. With the large base of mobile consumers and the multiplicity of languages they use, there is a need to deliver services in local languages.
Reverie's solutions provide out-of-the-box capabilities to both OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and application developers to integrate local language support. The sheer size of the addressable market is a big positive for Reverie. I agree with the chief executive that consumer experience is the key element here. The space does not necessarily have core R&D challenges compared to making the system user-friendly and having great fonts, great translation, etc.
The challenges would lie in the business model that Reverie builds and the use cases it targets. While addressing a smaller base of emerging market customers, similar companies on desktop and web platforms haven't scaled up due to the lack of suitable business models. OEMs are often motivated to bundle such functionality into the platform at marginal revenue to providers of the technology.
The, developers tend to use the platform functionality, instead of paying for language capability. Reverie could benefit significantly by solving the business model well, even as it continues to make mobile phones usable for millions of non-English users.
Alok Mittal is managing director, Canaan Partners India