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It's good to talk

Many Indians prefer mobile phones to computer screens for accessing the internet, causing a huge sur

If you want to know just how much Indians love to talk, take a trip due south from the capital, New Delhi, to the nation's tip, where it meets the Indian Ocean. On the way, you'll encounter eight languages, not including English.

A passion for speech may be one reason why mobile phones are so popular in India, while broadband penetration remains low. It may also be a clue to why the country seems on its way to becoming a major global player in voice-based technologies.

“Voice is a huge market and there are lots of companies here doing it," says Yusuf Motiwala, who used to work for Texas Instruments in the US before founding TringMe in Bangalore in 2007. He and his partner Apul Nahata run a website that allows people to make calls between any telephone or speech application; plus, they've created an easy platform for developers to set up their own voice-enabled sites. The pair of young computer scientists work out of tiny offices - just a couple of small rooms above a house - yet they have attracted more than six million users worldwide, many of whom are in the US.

“People say that Silicon Valley is where it's really happening but Bangalore is happening, too," Nahata says. "People here have leapfrogged over other countries in the past ten years."

At IBM, which has had a presence in India for almost two decades, scientists are working on a groundbreaking audio-based internet project. "It's like a parallel web," says Manish Gupta, who heads the company's research laboratories in New Delhi.

His team has developed the Hyperspeech Transfer Protocol (HSTP), which links up audio in the same way as text is linked on web pages on the normal internet. On this "Spoken Web", you use an ordinary phone to navigate to addresses using numbered options, in the same way as you would with an automated helpline when you call your bank or electricity company.

With just 12 million broadband connections against over half a billion mobile-phone connections in India, it makes sense for IBM to be driving mobile-based internet applications. After successful trials in rural India, the Spoken Web is one of IBM's most important new projects; the firm has allocated $100m to mobile communications research over five years.

Speak easy

The idea also cashes in on how most Indians speak languages and dialects that aren't well represented online (English is the main language of almost two out of every five internet users, followed by Chinese) or how they may be too poorly educated to use the text-based internet - after all, adult literacy in India stands at only 74 per cent.

The need to develop voice-based technologies for the poor, illiterate and blind is another reason the Indian government is getting in on the trend. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, headquartered in Pune, recently announced a project to design an application that will allow people to give instructions to an internet browser in spoken Bengali, English, Hindi or Urdu and receive a spoken response from the machine.
It's a huge challenge in voice recognition - but then, as Gupta says, "Our whole civilisation is founded on this concept of the spoken word."

Angela Saini's "Geek Nation" is out now (Hodder, £20).

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India