Date:27/05/2004 URL:


Say hello to Microsoft's Indian avatars

After sporting a few cosmetic Indian language fonts for many years, Windows and Office have finally been overhauled as full fledged desi versions. Anand Parthasarathy sizes up the new products.

THOSE WHO have stuck with Microsoft's desktop operating systems, from the early days of DOS, to the various versions of Windows, as well as the parallel upgrades to its Office suite, have had to contend with one incongruity over the years. The products have come with specific versions for dozens of languages, including multiple flavours of Chinese, as well as relatively obscure tongues like Croatian. But Microsoft ignored the languages of the Indian subcontinent for many years, except for a minor tweaking here and there, to enable writing and saving documents in a limited range of Indian fonts. In the company's radar, India was English-speaking territory.

The rapid growth of the personal computing market here, a good part of it fuelled by officially sponsored e-governance applications has seemingly convinced Microsoft that it is now time to address the `other' India for whom English is not an option. The visit of Bill Gates to this country two years ago, kick started the company's `desi' language thrust starting with a separate `Project Bhasha' initiative in September last year. A small team of evangelists has spread out, talking to individual states and trying to convince them to partner with Microsoft in their vernacular education and governance tasks. The most recent success has been with Orissa where it has signed a memorandum of understanding in April on the computerization of various government department activities as well as committing to develop an Oriya language interface pack for Windows and Office. Earlier it has created a Hindi citizens' portal called "Nai Disha" for Haryana and a Kannada interface for Karnataka's rural and Panchayati Raj programmes

Meanwhile, 2004 has seen Microsoft unveil the first ever version of its Office suite in an Indian language. The Hindi MS Office is a full fledged language edition — not just a bit of devanagiri stuck on top of the English version (see box) and for this reason is a landmark in Indian language computing. It is not that excellent Indian language word processing, spread sheeting and desktop publishing tools have not been able — but almost all of them have had to contend with the undeniable dominance of Microsoft on the world's desktops and offer compatibility with its formats as a selling point. The availability of a full fledged Indian version of the parent suite will inevitably impact PC usage in Hindi in ways that we may not at present be able to foresee.

And not just in Hindi: In answer to a query from "The Hindu", Microsoft India's Managing Director Rajiv Kaul clarified: " We expect this (Hindi) offering to be particularly popular with central and state government, public undertakings, the banking industry, educational institutes and the local developer community. Microsoft will also roll out "Office" in 13 other regional languages. At least five of these languages can be expected by year end.

While this is the roadmap for the Office suite, freely downloadable interfaces in a few Indian languages are already available for the Windows XP operating system. The Hindi Language Interface Pack (LIP) is available at . Bengali and Malayalam and a few more language interfaces are currently in `beta' format. These add-ons will allow users to install language specific `skins', over the standard Windows, create documents and send emails in non-Roman fonts.

There is a tendency among many software developers as well as technology watchers, particularly those ideologically committed to Open Source, to view every development at Microsoft through a `them versus' prism. Indeed, some sections of the media have expressed fears that the arrival of Indian language editions of Windows and MS Office will mark the demise of some worthy initiatives in creating Indian language fonts and tools under the Open General License. They point at recent successes like the Malayalam font "Rachana". These fears are misplaced.

Microsoft did not work on its Indian language programmes alone. It has partnered with 10 local companies including well known names like Web Duniya, Modular, Samtech and Web Chutney who have been delivering compelling products in the desi computing space. And they have been agnostic when it comes to operating environments: even while helping Microsoft realize its Bhasha tools they are progressing their own software tools geared to work under Linux. There will be those for whom Microsoft's Indian language suites and tools will fill a long felt need — and not all of them will be first time users who have been denied the use of a PC because they are not proficient in English. Many will just like the bilingual capability and the ability to do work in an Indian language, while seamlessly meshing with a global platform standard like Windows, will be a plus point.

And there will be others for whom the open source environment has its attractions — both ideological and monetary.

The opportunity for desi computing is a vast, promising new playfield — and the arrival of Microsoft in the `maidan' will only make the `khel' that much keener.

"Your computer, in your language"

MICROSOFT'S HINDI `Office' lives up to its slogan: "Your computer in your language". It is available in two versions Standard ( Rs 8000) and Professional ( Rs 16,000). It will run on Windows 2000 or Windows XP. The standard version contains Hindi versions of the word processor `Word', the spreadsheet `Excel', the presentation tool `Powerpoint' and the emailer `Outlook'. The Professional version has in addition the data base `Access', MS Publisher as well as XML tools for wireless extensions. Educational institutions can register for cheaper student and teacher editions, which are identical to the standard version.

For those already working with the English Office, the Hindi version will have the same familiar look and feel. But for new comers, the accompanying booklet in Hindi will be helpful — but not comprehensive: These days Microsoft does not provide the substantial printed documentation that used to accompany its products — putting most resources in the Help files. However the features are — like the original MS Office — so evolved and intuitive, that even lay users will figure out the features quite soon.

While Microsoft initially suggested that its Hindi Office would be click-interchangeable with English, this feature is not currently available in the single users versions you can buy. It is provided under the multi user licence alone. This is an inexplicable omission, since existing Office users looking to switch partially to Hindi must surely make up a significant market. The feature has been promised in future upgrades.

Meanwhile the Hindi `daphthar' is open for business!

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