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!
The debate about digital technology and localization and internationalization has probably raged in one form or other ever since someone invented the first program. Mind, for me personally it goes back to that ill-fated moment when ASCII was born with some bright spark arguing that no one would ever need more than those few letters that English has. My first computing headaches were around ASCII – how do I do an /ɣ/ and what the heck was %73£ when someone typed it at the other end?
Much has happened since and I’ve moved from phonology to software translation big time but I still can’t quite decide whether we’re in a better place now or not when it comes to small languages. Those technicalities (like ASCII vs Unicode) aside, the field has indeed opened up, in particular when it comes to open source software. There’s nothing but laziness that stops a language from having at least an office suite (LibreOffice), a browser (Firefox or Opera), an email client and calendar (Thunderbird and Lightning), a media player (VLC), a wiki (MediWiki), a spellchecker, a forum package (phpBB) and blogging software (WordPress.org and .com) – satisfying a fair chunk of your average user. For the really tough there’s Linux in all its scary glory of course. Ignoring the height of the bar when it comes to actually localizing some of them, that’s not the whole story though.
At least in digitized countries, a significant chunk of our work and social lives have shifted onto various digital platforms. Desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets… you name it. Hardly a year goes by without some innovation hitting the headlines. And the tech savy (overwhelmingly the young) have become real digital nomads. Yesterday’s app is so passé today and today’s market leader mobile phone OS may be tomorrow’s digital roadkill (anyone remember Symbian?). It’s a bewildering, fluid place.
It’s a place we can’t ignore. Whether we like it or not, virtually anyone under the age of 25 has a smartphone, from rocky outcrops in the Western Ocean like Barra to the mountains of Gipuzkoa, the deserts of Arizona and the steaming hills of Papua New Guinea. Ok, maybe not Papua New Guinea yet though it wouldn’t surprise me. The more of a space we can carve out for out languages and cultures, the better because sadly the old maxim of “Use it or lose it” – or however your language puts that – is true.
So we must compete somehow, at least at some base level. But I increasingly feel that without a small but dedicated full time team, this will become harder and harder unless there’s some magic on the way that I haven’t heard about. Let me give you an example. Predictive texting goes back to the 1970s, believe it or not but not wanting to be too depressive about it, it probably did not make huge inroads into our lives before the year 2000 or so when it really took off on phones. Back then, you had those languages which your manufacturer deemed appropriate, maybe a dozen or so if you were lucky. We’re now in 2012 and I’m waiting with bated breath for the first release of Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx on Adaptxt which, after much searching, I discovered last year. Finally an open source predictive texting project open to any language. Yay! Ok, so it only works on Android… I can live with that, looking at the Android market share. It would be good if iPhones also supported 3rd party entry methods but they don’t and I’m getting to the cheesed off stage with Apple’s approach to non-billion-speaker-languages anyway.
But I digress. There we are, happily preparing the tool which will finally take Scots Gaelic and Manx out of the letter-by-letter age (Irish has had Téacs since 2008 but I’m not sure how alive the project is) when Apple starts pushing Siri (that voice recognition thing on iPhones which, by the way, only works if your accent resembles that of the Queen and or Charleton Heston). I bet my bottom dollar that before long, every major mobile phone manufacturer will be running something similar.
Here, I gnash my teeth. Predictive texting is reasonably easy to do as long as you have a framework you can feed your data into. For example a spellchecker. But it’s taken around a decade for such a framework to grow out of the cyber community. Speech recognition is a harder. A lot harder. I have no idea how long it will take for languages such as Gaelic to take that hurdle and even less so of how many of this planet’s 6,000 languages will manage to do so. And that makes it all a little frustrating.
I don’t know what the answer is, right now, I just feel it would be nice if stuff slowed down a bit. Honestly, how much technological innovation do we need in 12 months? Or rather, how many false summits can we and our languages keep pace with?