Smart in my bhasha

rashmi pratap | Updated on December 19, 2014

Local calls: Firstouch handsets cater to the English-unfamiliar market.

Firstouch co-founder Rakesh Deshmukh

With handsets that allow users to type in a regional language and ‘swipe’ into English or vice versa, Firstouch has a huge market-in-waiting here in India

In 2011, when mobile applications developer MoFirst (now renamed Firstouch) Solutions bagged a project from Myanmar, little did its founders know it would change the direction of their company forever. The project involved building a mobile interface in Burmese on the Android platform. That required customising the operating system in that language. Firstouch co-founders Rakesh Deshmukh, Akash Dongre and Sudhir B took up the challenge, and profited from it monetarily. More importantly, it gave them the idea of replicating the model in India, where every state speaks a different language and each presents a huge market.

“We realised that each state in India is a mini-country with a culture of its own. And while the mobile market has shifted from feature to smartphones, the rural market has not been able to adopt them… we thought of something that could help people communicate in their own language,” says Deshmukh, an IIT-Bombay alumnus.

While some mobile brands currently offer keyboards in a few Indian languages, these are not easy to use. One has to switch between screens to type a message, as one screen will have a few consonants and another the rest. Punctuation is time-consuming and not easy.

Firstouch handsets, in contrast, offer it all on a single screen. When a letter is selected, predictive words as well as punctuation in all combinations pop up, making it user-friendly.

More significantly, users can convert a message in English into another language through what Deshmukh calls the swipe technology. A swipe from left to right will convert an English text message into, say, Gujarati. Similarly, a message keyed-in in a regional language can be ‘swiped’ into English before sending. “The consumer can communicate in English without knowing the language. This is a big market opportunity for us,” Deshmukh says.

To make this work, the company created its own Firstouch operating system, which perches on the phone’s hardware. So, basically, the company imports handsets, installs its operating system and sells these through distributors and retailers. “Our technology is not dependent on where the handsets are made or assembled.” For its pilot in Gujarat, Firstouch imported handsets from China.

Currently available only with Gujarati interface, Firstouch handsets will support Tamil from January, and Hindi and Marathi by April. Since May, the Mumbai-based company has sold over 3,000 handsets with Gujarati interface in Saurashtra alone.

As the company sees itself as a regional smartphone company, its founders are working towards creating an entire mobile ecosystem rather than just smartphones. “We know the market is segmented and so it is important to give a unified experience. Along with handsets, we have to give users regional content. Only then will consumers shift brand,” says Deshmukh.

Firstouch has accordingly set up an app store, App Bazaar, to offer content downloads in regional languages. On offer are 1,000 apps through tie-ups with major publishers including Nazara Technologies, Gameloft, EA Games and Hungama. “We are also creating a platform where publishers can publish content on our app store,” he adds.

Again, to make it convenient for regional users, most of whom don’t have credit cards, Firstouch has linked app download and usage to carrier billing. Users will pay their telecom operator for the paid content. “Moreover, since our customers are just shifting from feature phones, they may not have email accounts. So their phone’s IMEI number (unique to every handset) becomes their user ID instead,” says Deshmukh.

But he knows well that for a mass market, tie-ups with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or handset makers are a must. “We believe it is better to go with a larger opportunity. Now we are focusing on licensing our technology to OEMs,” he says.

Firstouch operating system will soon be offered on handsets of other brands too. But Deshmukh is not ready to reveal the details yet. “We will finalise the partnership in the next few months,” he says.

And when he does, it will be much easier for regional users to find top brand handsets customised in their own language.

Published on December 19, 2014

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