India’s Mobile Problem: 22 Languages, 1 English Language OS

Quartz has a great story about the Indian mobile market, the second biggest market after China. What’s keeping it from blowing up?

There are officially 21 recognized languages in India, each with its own script. And while India is known as an Anglophone nation, speaking English is largely the domain of middle or upper-class educated urban folk. A lot of them communicate phonetically using the English alphabet, but that doesn’t work for the rest.

The majority of Indians (70%) live in rural areas and can’t functionally use their English phones.

It’s interesting to see how Abhijit Bhattacharjee has approached this design problem:

Bhattacharjee’s solution is ingenious. Panini Keypad, named for a Sanskrit linguist, turns the screen into a virtual keypad corresponding to the 12 buttons on older phones. After a user types in the first character of a word, the phone displays a set of letters in a 3×4 grid corresponding to the keypad. An algorithm picks the characters it thinks will most likely come next, based on a corpus of literature from that language. Instead of clicking repeatedly until the right character is displayed, the user can pick one from that set or go on to the next screen.


The above image shows what the (now dead) Sanskrit language- the parent of many of today’s Indian languages. Each letter undergoes a variation when you go from “ka” to “kee” or “kay,” which works out so intuitively with pen and a paper. To reduce that into a 12-button phone is a phenomenal task that will empower rural peoples with an important communication tool that they’ve effectively been sidelined from using.

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