FEATURE: Local apps for local people

[Intel sponsored feature] By focusing on English, you're cutting out half your potential market, says Softtalkmobile
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As British developers, we’re spoiled. So many of the best tools and tutorials are produced in English, thanks to America’s technological leadership, a passionate UK software industry, and the willingness of developers in other countries to write in English for an international audience.

On one of my blogs I get comments from China and India, and am in awe of the commenters’ command of English. It seems that English has become the leading language for talking about technology.

From a developer’s point of view, making an app in English seems to be the best way to reach the mass market too. There’s a huge base of native English speakers, and plenty of people who have English as a second language. Data from the Intel AppUp center shows just how big a market leadership the English language has. 52% of customers there have English as a first language, and there’s a huge drop-off after that.

The next most popular language is Spanish (13%), then come French (12%), German (10%) and Italian (7%).

These figures will change over time, of course, especially as Intel grows the presence of its app store across Europe.

But if you’re launching an app today, or in the near future, it might give you pause for thought.

The obvious thing to do is to launch an app in English to hit the biggest market. But the obvious answer is rarely the best one. By focusing on English, you’re cutting out half your potential market.

Of course, a lot of people who don’t have English as a first language might be willing and able to use it for your app. But I wouldn’t count on it. People will gravitate towards those apps that are easiest to use, and the language of the app must play a big part in that.

Because we can use our native language so freely in the software industry, it’s easy to forget that using a foreign language can be difficult and tiring for our customers overseas.

People might be less willing to pay for an app that isn’t in their language, and might not even be willing to dig into the demo or store data to see if it’s worth the extra effort.

So, why not localise the app? It’s not as hard as it sounds. Many apps are highly visual and have few language-dependent features. Most of the games I play have very limited use of language, just a few buttons to start the game, some annotations in the tutorial, and a few on-screen labels for the score and timer.

It still takes work to translate them. But it’s not an unreasonable amount of work to unlock a whole new market.

The trick to making it easy is to separate your on-screen text from your code. This is a lesson web designers learned some time ago when they adopted CSS, so that the content of the web page is separate from its design and they can be changed independently of each other.

If your on-screen labels are embedded in the instructions that display them on the screen, you’re in trouble.

You’ll find you have language-dependent content scattered throughout your code.

Instead, you can separate your text into a mini database, and store all the language variants of it there. You might have five entries for the ‘score’ label for five different languages.

Another data item might be the page of instructions, again stored in five different languages. Your code can be written to take the right term from the database depending on the language in use and drop that into the game where it’s needed.

Using words like ‘database’ makes it sound grander than it is: often, you’ll just be dealing with a simple array. But it makes a huge difference to how adaptable your game is.

For example, did you know that you can change the language of Facebook to be pirate speak? Log in, click your language at the bottom and then choose English (Pirate).

Your friends become your mateys, and your wall becomes the Captain’s Log. It’s a fun feature, but I bet it didn’t take them long to put together. They just had to rattle through their language table, entering new terms for each item in it, and it’s done.

Even if your current plan is just to have the text in English, using an extensible structure for your text like this will enable you to modify your text more easily and add new languages later. You might think it doesn’t matter now, but when you have a hit game on your hands and the whole world wants it, the quicker you can localise, the more money you can make.

This blog post is written by Softtalkmobile, and is sponsored by the Intel AppUp developer program, a single channel for distributing apps to multiple devices, multiple operating systems, and multiple app stores