If you are to spy on the thousands of messages darting across Indian mobile networks at any given point of time, you may find some interesting linguistic patterns.
Indic Language computing enthusiasts believe - and are willing to bet on it - that the predominant SMS lingo of the average Indian is the local language. Then why must one be forced to SMS in English?
Tachyon Technologies, a Bangalore company, has released a midlet (a mobile application) 'Quillpad' that allows you to 'transliterate' or key in your thoughts (phonetically) in English and watch it being delivered in Hindi (Devanagari script). While online transliteration services have been around for some time now - with several home-grown companies and large email, chat and blogging services offering it for free - this is the first of its kind application on the mobile platform.
Quillpad's web avatar, which (in 2006) preceded Google's now popular transliteration tools by a year, registered no less than 1.16 lakh unique users in September. What makes it click? For starters, Quillpad's predictive engine is far more intuitive (in interpreting the phonetics), offers more options and is more powerful than most home-grown technologies that clutter the Indi-webspace.
In its beta mobile release, Quillpad is a light-weight 355 KB application file that can be downloaded from the web site (or transferred through Bluetooth). Once installed, it offers a text-input mechanism - you can toggle between English, Hindi and numbers - and a full-fledged messaging menu. On typing the word phonetically in English, it offers multiple spelling options much like (and as powerful as) its online widget. It then encodes this into Unicode, connects to the phone and sends the message.
The USP of Quillpad's transliterator lies in the choices it offers for every set of phonetics you hurl at it. While writing Hindi (or any Indian language) in English, there is no correct spelling, and this engine seems to understand it. Tachyon founder Ram Prasad H. says it has been coded to interpret variations in phonetics. For instance, the word 'Flight' comes up as 'flith' or 'fleeh' on most extremely popular tools. "Instead of a dictionary of words, we evolved a pattern. So even if a word has never occurred in our dictionary, it uses the patterns it has learnt from other words [in the database] to throw up more accurate options," he explains. Quillpad's test version is available for free download (for 25 messages) and costs a one-time fee of Rs.149. Currently, it is available only for Hindi, but will soon be extended to nine other languages, the company claims.
So can Tachyon hope to repeat this success story on the mobile? Perhaps it could. The test version is ridden with minor bugs such as space or line issues. The biggest issue, however, remains the threat of a potential lock-in or getting into a situation in which only two Quillpad-installed phones can talk to each other. About a dozen messages sent out could not be rendered on other handsets owing to the absence of pre-installed fonts.
Quillpad's release has been on hold for two years now for this very reason. However, Mr. Prasad believes Indian fonts come bundled with most new handsets. "Biz heads have got it wrong. They think that Indian mobile users use only English. To take this forward, that has to change, and I hope this project will drive the demand for that change."