Local languages on the mobile, the problem few are trying to solve & how to type in Malayalam

Its hard to find a lot of local language content online. So much so that experts fear that some languages stand a good chance of becoming extinct in the Internet dominated future. Its even tougher to search and retrieve local language content effectively.

WikipediaOne important reason was the lack of Indic keyboards and input methods. Google’s transliteration tool came along and solved some parts of the problem. There are others doing their bit, like the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) which developed a lot of local language fonts, state departments which digitized some of their literature and the Wikipedians.

Even then, Indian languages have a particularly hard time on the web. But it shouldn’t ideally be so because when India reaches 300 million Internet users in the next couple of years, a majority of users will be comfortable using local languages.

The same problem exists on the mobile. In the early days, device makers only made English keyboards. It simply wasn’t worth their while to make keyboards for local languages. The older operating systems supported a few languages in a very limited fashion. Like for instance one could type out a text message in Hindi but it couldn’t be read on devices manufactured by other companies.

In the touchscreen era, all this could change. Operating systems like the iOS, Android and WP have gotten so good that the underlying hardware hardly matters anymore. With no physical keyboards, a simple app can replace the keyboard. Even better if apps start supporting local languages themselves- like for instance the PlusTxt messenger which sports local language support as a unique selling point. The folks at Reverie are also doing some awesome work for local languages on the mobile.

Few developers are trying to solve the problem but it remains to be seen how users will like them.

ThulikaI was looking to type in Malayalam. After some searching, I found a some apps, but I’m nowhere close to the effortless pen and paper Malayalam experience. The one I liked was Thulika, a keyboard app. This app, however, is not going to work for you if you want to type really fast.

Once you install the app, you need to set it up. Go to System Settings> Language & Keyboard> Select Thulika. Now you can select the Thulika keyboard as input method while typing.

The handwriting recognition works well. The app is in beta and has its limitations. For instance, I wrote a couple of lines and when I exit the input screen, the native text messaging app doesn’t render the font. That’s more of a phone problem than an app problem. I then sent it to a friend of mine who is on a Nokia S60 phone. “Can’t read. Just some jumbled characters and rectangles,” he replied. When I typed onto a chat window and sent it to a friend, it showed up in his screen but like before, it wouldn’t show up on my phone though.

The other app which I really like is Varamozhi transliteration. I like it more because it allows you to type in Manglish. The apps on the phone aren’t able to render the font but it works when you are sending stuff across on Gmail, Gtalk etc. For instance, I changed my Gtalk status message. It shows up as a blank space on the phone but renders nicely on the desktop. It works the same way for Facebook and Twitter. If you are looking to type fast, this might be your best bet.

Then there is the Panini Keyboard which supports Malayalam but isn’t all that great to use. The letters are spread over 7 different screens. So you will find yourself toggling between screen more often than typing. If you’ve come across any great apps that do the job, drop us a line. We’d love to try it out.

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