I’m compuzzled, as my old flatmate would say. Why is it that software projects often hide their nicest features away in the dark little corners of a site? Are they afraid it might be successful? Are they trying to hedge their bets in case it flops? Or are the explanations even more complicated?
Not sure I have the answer but let me expand with an example or two to begin with. You may remember my post on doing predictive texting in Gaelic, Irish and Manx. A short while ago, when talking to the developers over at Adaptxt learned to my dismay that while they were keen on enabling the technology on iPhone and Windows Phones, neither was going to happen. I already knew about iPhones being anal-retentive when it comes to localization and entry methods but I was dismayed that Windows seemed to be going down the same root. Not that I have or will have a Windows Phone but I’m not the measure of things. Other people might well buy one. Wait, so we may well get a localized version of the Windows Phone but no predictive texting in Gaelic? Surely not… So I decided to do a little digging and found that apart from the developers at Adaptxt sadly being right, the Windows Phone site has a feature suggestion tool.
Incidentally, we have a small campaign going to lobby Microsoft to allow 3rd Party Entry Methods (or, in English, the option for people to develop, offer and install tools like predictive texting in languages Microsoft isn’t interested in). Every vote counts 🙂
But anyway, it’s a nice idea, a feature suggestion page. So why is it hidden underneath so many layers? I actually have no idea how you’re supposed to reach that page from the front page and only happened to chance across it through some crafty manipulation of Google (I’m not a developer but I’m very good at finding stuff on the web…). Are they afraid people might actually participate en masse? Are they worried a developer might have to confront the fact that in reality, feature X sucks?
Google went through an even stranger metamorphosis. Back in the early days when Google was still new, they tried very hard to get folk involved and localization featured quite prominently in that. So the link to the Google In Your Language project was quite prominent and, naturally, I jumped at the chance of putting Gaelic on Google. What happened then was a bit like the St Brigid’s cross shrinkage in the RTÉ logo… first the prominent link went. Well.. ok, I had bookmarked it and it wasn’t that hard to find via a search. The the associated forum went dead. Then Google In Your Language was axed (of course without telling the translators). Bizarrely, the page is still up proclaiming that
Google believes that fast and accurate searching has universal value. That’s why we are eager to offer our service in all the languages scattered upon the face of the earth. We need your help to make this a reality.
You can volunteer to translate Google’s help information and search interface into your favorite language. By helping with our translation process you ensure that Google will be available in your language of choice more quickly and with a better interface than it would have otherwise. There is no minimum commitment. You can translate a phrase, a page or our entire site. Once we have enough of the site translated, we will make it available in the language you are requesting.
If you are interested in helping us, please read the translation style guide, frequently asked questions list, and the legal stuff. Then click on the link at the right to sign up as a volunteer.
We hope you enjoy working on our Google translation project and thank you for helping to make Google a truly worldwide web service.
Ha bloody ha. These days the cynical part of myself poses the question if they had always planned this or if this was something that just happened? We’ll probably never know as nobody knows nutting or at least nobody is telling us nuttin. But I wouldn’t put it past them to have done the cynical thing.
Or maybe organisations like Microsoft and Google are just as badly organised as smaller organisations. I know of at least one online dictionary project where the publisher, an academic institution, ummed and erred about whether to produce a digital searchable version of dictionary or not. Over several years. When it looked like they were just going to let it die a silent death, someone with a bit of chutzpah just did it and stuck in on a corner of the institutions website. At some point it had become such an institution that it was quietly accepted as the status quo – which of course also meant they didn’t have to support it financially. Accident or design? Who knows. Badly organised in any case.
So is it just sheer incompetence, a lack of imagination or empowerment, too many or not enough hoops that one has to jump through? I don’t know but it sure is annoying… in this spirit, time for a glass of Chambord a kind soul donated. Slàinte mhòr!
Aye, Google… I’m rather disappointed at them these days I must say. It was a really exciting project in the beginning when I joined their Google in Your Language project. Gosh, I thought, they actually promise “Google believes that fast and accurate searching has universal value. That’s why we are eager to offer our service in all the languages scattered upon the face of the earth.” – how unusually enlightened for a software company, sign me up. Which I did, along with hundreds of other volunteers, putting in hundreds of hours of our time … well, you all know how it works. They did give us a t-shirt at one point, mind. In hindsight, the fact they did that rather than given each one of us, say, a dozen shiny Google shares should have set off some warning bells but hindsight is a great thing.
Initially, all languages were pretty much on a par but soon, inequality started creeping in. While other languages (the big ones) were getting jazzed up search interfaces, smaller languages like Gaelic weren’t. And I also began to realise that Google did not enable all translation projects (they come as separate sub-projects) for all languages, per default or on request. Things like Gmail or GoogleDocs. Ah, requests… that kinda implies communication, doesn’t it? We did have the google.public.translators group but as you might guess, admins were thin on the ground. Many questions and issue were left unanswered so while other projects got fancy with plural formatting and translation memories and suchlike, Google stuck to the if-it’s-not-in-English-we-don’t-want-to-know approach. Initially, I decided that, the company being a startup, this was down to limited resources and that change would come. Change did come to the coffers of Google but not to the localization teams.
More and more English kept creeping in, to the extent that I began to wonder how many people were still using the localized interfaces when they offer perhaps 10% of the overall functionality of Google. Yet, I kept telling myself it would get better. Hm.
I got briefly excited over Google Chrome.. very briefly mind. I foolishly assumed that something as important as this would automatically be made available to all teams. Nope. I emailed those precious few people at Google whose emails I had. No answer. Not to that particular question, but perhaps asking two questions in the same email is too demanding. So I start hitting the web in search of answers. I did get some, but everyone gave me a different one… some said that localizing Chromium would result in a localized Google Chrome, others contradicted that. No one over on the Linux side really seemed to know, answers again ranging from yes through maybe to no way. I’m still waiting for a definitive answer. A project to “move the web forward” indeed.
I’ve even written a very nice if somewhat disappointed letter to Google. That was back in January. Meanwhile, google.public.translators keeps coming and going on and offline and the newest post is from 2008. I posted earlier this year, asking where everyone was. Mysteriously, the post has disappeared. I deduce that admins are watching, but not communicating.
All in all, I’m feeling very bitter I must say. More so than over the OpenOffice thing. I still keep the User Interface for Gaelic up to 100% but in all honesty, if someone comes up with a good open source search engine, I’ll decamp. Google has been successful not only due to its fancy algorithms but also due to the many volunteers who made the interface available in their languages. If Google had only ever catered for the English-speaking world, then I doubt they’d be as successful today. It feels like ingratitude of the worst kind.
Was I foolish to put faith into something that was so clearly aiming for a commercial stranglehold on the web? Perhaps. Perhaps they’ll come good still, though I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, I shall steer people towards OperaMail if they want online mail in Gaelic and put my hopes in the LibreOffice Cloud project.
But, dear 3PO, at least it’s making an attempt. Which is more than can be said for certain organisations, in spite of the recognized importance of good communication. Let me take you back a few years…
Most developers will already know what I mean with the OpenOffice to LibreOffice fork. For the rest of humanity, the short version goes something like this: StarOffice (then owned by Sun Microsystems) is made Open Source back in 2000 to counter the dominance of Microsoft Office. Called it OpenOffice and hey presto, there was a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Then Oracle buys Sun Microsystems and suddently trouble is afoot. I won’t even bother to try and dissect who did what to whom and who was right or wrong. The short of it is, most of the community upped sticks, took a “copy” of the then version of OpenOffice and set up a rival project called LibreOffice. That’s what’s called a “fork”.
Oracle then divests itself of OpenOffice by donating it to the Apache Foundation but that’s not so relevant here.
What IS relevant is they way in which this was all done. From the early days of OpenOffice, there were lots of translation teams, including a lot of “small” languages because normally languages like Tibetan, Bodo and Oromo don’t even get a look in the door of proprietary software houses. So they put in lot of time and effort into translating OpenOffice into their languages. To do so, they use an online tool called Pootle. Like a big set of tables with stuff to be translated on the one side and your translations on the other and remembers bits you already translated. It obviously gets more complicated than that but that’s Pootle (or indeed any translation memory) in a nutshell. Ok, neat.
I joined OpenOffice late in 2010 when I got fed up with the Gaelic translation of OpenOffice having fallen several releases behind. Although technically legal under the OpenOffice license, the people who had been paid to translate OpenOffice into Gaelic (a company called Cànan) did what’s normally frowned upon – instead of sharing the translated strings with the Pootle server of OpenOffice, they built their own installation packages and distributed those from their own servers and via LTS (today called Education Scotland). In essence, sitting on the translations like a mother hen on its eggs. Your guess is as good as mine as to why. Anyway, the upshot was that I had to start from scratch again. Given I also used the chance to ensure the terminology aligned with the rest of the Gaelic software universe, perhaps not a bad thing but a lot of unnecessary work nonetheless. But regular sleep is for wimps.
So, there I was steaming ahead, when rumours of this new LibreOffice project reached me. To cover all bases, I also sign up for that project on the recommendation of a friend. But I continued my translation over on OpenOffice as I’d already started there. I reach the 2/3 mark when suddenly, the OpenOffice Pootle server goes dead on a Friday or Saturday I think it was. Not to worry, it’s probably just a glitch I tell myself. Yeah right. It never came to life again. Ever. No matter how many emails I posted to the mailing lists, nothing. Not even a response. Neither on the lists nor, thinking it might be more diplomatic, off the lists.
Luckily, I had just taken a backup the day before. Very lucky indeed, a total fluke as I’m not normally that regular in making backups of stuff I figure other folk are backing up. So I did manage to migrate over to LibreOffice fairly unscathed but nonetheless scathing. If not for myself, for the other teams who may not have been so lucky. And counting in at about 100,000 words, it’s not just a piece of cake doing that from scratch.
But wait, it gets better… Oracle donated the whole project to Apache, remember? Well, Apache are still trying to figure out what the most recent set of translations are and how to get the whole thing up and running again.
More than a year on, I’m still seething about it (as you may have guessed). Perhaps the developer mailing lists were all abuzz with the impending shutdown. But most translators don’t follow the development lists, there’s only so much mail an inbox can take. I don’t know. All I know is that on the translation lists, no-one warned about the shutdown. Which would have been – at the very least – the decent thing to do because whatever storms were brewing on the development side of OpenOffice, the translation list was concerned with its main aim – translation, not politics.
And to my knowledge, no one bothered to tell the users anything either. Not for a very long time anyway. All they noticed was that stuff wasn’t working as it should any more, like the extensions site which kept going offline.
Localization is often seen as an afterthought to “the real work” and while I don’t agree, that’s just the way it is. Fine. But 100 hours of a translator’s lifetime are just as important as 100 hours of developer lifetime. Loosing that tends to make translators a bit tetchy. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the majority of translators have decamped to LibreOffice and look set to stay there, even if Apache OpenOffice comes back on stream.
Which, especially in the Open Source world where volunteers (remember, they volunteer, they’re not serfs) have the choice of going somewhere else, tells you one thing – if there’s big stuff afoot, it pays to communicate this to the folk who might not be in the midst of the firestorm but who are involved nonetheless.