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Vinay Chhajlani

Founder & CEO | 07 Jan 2005

If you look at the traditional media, whether it is the newspapers or the print media or now TV and radio, you see that most of them are actually getting popular in regional languages – both in terms of revenue and growth potential. What we believe is that in India, if technology and internet as a medium, or even wireless as a medium which is mobile MMS or mobile SMS, have to reach beyond a certain number, you have no choice but to develop in local languages.

The World's first multilingual portal and language technology service provider, Webunia.com (India) Pvt. Limited, is the brainchild of its Founder-CEO, Vinay Chhajlani. Under his leadership, Webdunia pioneered language Internet by providing Internet services in 11 Indian languages. His team has made e-patra (the world's first, free, web-based multilingual e-mail), e-varta (the world’s first multilingual chat), Webdunia Khoj (the world's first Indian language search engine) and Kamana (the world’s first multilingual e-greetings).

In addition to providing language technology services to leading players in the industry, like Microsoft, Rediff.com, Tata ISP, Indiatimes, NIIT Swift, Sify, Apollolife, Amul, Britannica and Indya.com, the company is working closely with the Government on several e-governance projects.

Chhajlani is a graduate in electrical engineering from BITS Pilani and MS in printing technology from Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. He started his career in 1986 as a planning executive with Semline Inc., a leading printing company in Boston. It was these two years at Semline that gave direction to his interest in IT.

Chhajlani was convinced that the full benefits of Internet can be brought to the common people in the country only if the content and the enabling technologies are available in Hindi or other Indian languages. He then committed himself to bridge the widening digital divide in the country. In an interview with Sakshi Talwar of exchange4media, Chhajlani talks about his venture into the world of language technology services, Internet technology and the vision for his brainchild. Excerpts:

Q. Can you explain why you decided to go into the Indian language segment?

If you look at the space over last five to six years, you will find that you can’t look at information technology and communication as separate entities. There is convergence all around and the new media is the combination of IT and communication put together. If you look at the traditional media, whether it is newspapers or the print media or now TV and radio, you see that most of them are actually getting popular in regional languages – both in terms of revenue and growth potential. What we believe is that in India, if technology and Internet as a medium, or even wireless as a medium which is mobile MMS or mobile SMS, have to reach beyond a certain number, you have no choice but to develop in local languages. You can see this trend in developed nations as well as emerging economies of South-East Asia and the Arab world.

Q. What is the basic nature of your portal?

Largely, we believe we are a horizontal property and we do have limited and good quality work. The whole idea is that we are currently targeting two major segments – one is Indian diaspora outside, who want to be in touch with India and have access to content in Indian languages, and second, to be able to serve the need for local content. We are the first ones to provide the ability to search in Indian languages and the ability to have a discussion board in Indian languages. We also provide a section for housewives that has recipes, household tips, etc.

Q. Given the low level of Internet penetration, how many people do you reach? What is the kind of traffic coming in?

It’s like asking how many people actually used to read a Hindi newspaper 20 years ago! The whole idea is creating awareness and making infrastructure available. Internet penetration is low on two counts – one, it is still a little expensive, and two, the penetration in terms of infrastructure is largely still an urban phenomenon – just about getting to be semi-urban or semi-rural. With the advent of new fibre optic networks that BSNL, Bharti, Reliance, etc., are putting up, in the next four to five years we will probably see exponential growth in the availability of Internet capabilities across the country.

We have several million users in all the languages that we have. In e-patra, we have more than one and a half million registered users. Other than that we are making content available in Indian languages on mobile phones and we see immense offtake there as a lot of people opt to see content in Indian languages on mobile phones through wireless applications.

Q. What does your mobile and wireless service entail? What work have you done in the telecom sector?

Our mobile and wireless services largely entail delivering content in a mobile format. There we are able to deliver Indian language content either using WML or through Java and other applications and even via SMS; for example, there is a Nokia ad campaign talking about Hindi SMS. It works from a Nokia phone to a Nokia phone, irrespective of a carrier. On that Nokia phone you can actually get content from us. We have had tie-ups in the past with Idea and Reliance Telecom where we had a Short Code that people could ask for news, horoscopes, etc., and get them. The largest success has now come in with our strategic tie-up with Reliance. They have a property called R-World. It gives you the ability to set a language of choice. If I choose a language and go on to features like news, etc., it will actually come in that local language. Since every Reliance phone has a Java support, any Reliance user can get Hindi content.

Other than that, we have worked with Tatanova where, along with their Internet connection, we have provided them with custom-made browser and an e-mail solution that is multilingual.

Q. Tell us something about your product offerings.

While most of our market branding is enjoyed in the form of Webdunia.com the portal, Webdunia as a company is largely into three spaces. One is technology space where we provide Indian language solutions; for instance, if you look at Microsoft Office localisation, that’s one project where Webdunia has been actively involved for all their Indian language initiatives. Likewise, we are involved with Reliance, Rediff, Times of India where, for a lot of their Indian language initiatives, the technology support has come from Webdunia as a company.

Other than that, we are a very strong player in the content space. We provide a lot of content that is already available on our portal but other than that we have also been in the services business of providing specialised content in Indian languages. And we provide content generation and content localisation services. The third part is that we run our portals. We have the Indian language search engine, we have a mail solution which works in all Indian languages, we have a creative team working across languages, and we also have language products like spell checker, thesaurus, number converter, etc.

Q. How did you create awareness about your portal and services? What is your target audience?

Initially, we went about doing a lot of branding and road shows and participation in events. We advertised in newspapers, in addition to events and other below-the-line activities. We also did a public awareness and a media presence at the Kumbh Mela. These things bring a lot of awareness and people start looking at your portal, a lot of it is word-of-mouth and based on utility of the portal.

Mostly, we target our readers. We don’t do any events in metros. Most of our events would be in a B or C class city. We were the first ones to make results available online in the year 2000.

Q. You have recently tied up with BBC. Can you share some details and also what benefits do you seek from this association?

It’s more of a content aggregation arrangement where both of us benefit because we both have our own set of users. In mathematical terms, there are two sets of users. Right now only common users to both will be reading the content on both portals but with this relationship, we have now expanded the reach of our content to other users. BBC has a reliable and rich content. It also prevents us from actually investing too many resources into trying to generate authentic content on international issues for the Indian diaspora, which is anyway the core strength of BBC’s Hindi team. It is a win-win situation for both.

Q. You claim to provide language technology services to leading players in the industry? What kind of services are these?

Let’s take Malayala Manorama for instance. It is a pure language company. They are a Malayalam publishing company. They have an online property and they would like their users to have a Malayalam mail, have chat service in Malayalam, ability to send a greeting cards in Malayalam, etc. We provide all the technology components required to enable this. Rediffmail has an option to compose a message in Hindi. Though Rediffmail does not come from us but the ability to compose an Indian language message inside a Rediff mail is facilitated by us.

Q. Where do you source your language software?

We are a software and a media company with a great technological mix. All the mobile and Java applications that we have done for Reliance have been built by us. Sixty per cent in our team is technical and 40 per cent is content. Like e-patra, e-mail solution and e-varta chat solution – these are all are 100 per cent homegrown products. We have our own language software. We do both, technology and content. We have merged our technical and content expertise to make a new company.

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