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Services and applications—The next frontier
Historically, development efforts have concentrated on providing basic voice communications to as many of the population as possible. However, given the state of communications technology today, one may be able to build a communication infrastructure that is capable of supporting both voice and data for the same cost as for a voice-only infrastructure. Data capability provides access to the world of the Internet and multimedia, making for a much richer experience for users. Technologies such as Wi-Fi are inherently data communications channels that can also support voice, whereas mobile phones are primarily voice communication channels with some limited data capabilities.
Beyond the realm of voice communications, the issue of language and literacy needs to be addressed. Over half of the world's population resides in the Asia Pacific region where over 2,000 languages are being used and English is understood by only about 20 per cent of the population. A related issue is the fact that most electronic devices are designed to support Romanized characters only, which means that it is not possible to input or display without modification pictographic languages such as Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Thai. Yet another difficulty is the fact that a large number of people in underdeveloped countries are illiterate. They not only lack the capability to understand a foreign language such as English, they also cannot read even in their own language, which means they cannot communicate using text-based applications such as email and SMS.
Several countries have shown that it is not necessary to use English to achieve success in getting their population to enjoy and benefit from advanced communication services. Countries like Japan, Korea, China and Thailand have shown that it is possible to develop comprehensive and innovative communications services using their native languages. For example, China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator with about 300 million subscribers, uses the Chinese language, and Japan and Korea have built two of the world's most sophisticated mobile phone services using the Japanese and Korean languages, respectively. These facts point to the need to develop communications services and devices that support languages native to the target population.
Some noteworthy attempts to develop native language capabilities in Asia Pacific include Malaysia's Murasu Communications (M) Sdn. Bhd., which is developing software to enable sending and receiving text messages in the Tamil language. In Cambodia, a private company, iWOW Communications Pte. Ltd., has developed a system for keying in and reading Khmer characters for sending and receiving SMS. There are cross-country efforts, such as some Chinese companies developing Korean language (Hangul) capabilities for sending text messages from China to Korea. Similarly, Pock Translate (http://www.pocktranslate.com/) runs a service for translating English SMS text into the Thai language to help visitors to Thailand communicate with the local people. Finally, Microimage, a Sri Lankan company, won the prestigious GSMA Asia Mobile Innovation Award 2006 for their multilingual (Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Thaana) SMS software for mobile phones.
The Internet is a treasure trove of information that can be very useful for development efforts in Asia Pacific. Unfortunately, most of the information is in English and beyond the reach of the majority of people in the region. To bridge the language barrier, research organizations are developing automatic machine language translators to convert the information into a form that the local population can understand.
NECTEC (the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center) in Thailand has developed such a suite of software applications called Parsit, an English-to-Thai language translation engine that has an accuracy of over 90 per cent. Parsit automatically translates Internet content in English into the Thai language, making it comprehensible to most people in Thailand. Parsit can work in conjunction with Vaja, a text-to-speech conversion software that takes in Thai-language characters and generates human voice of that text. Using Vaja, one can overcome the literacy barrier because the information from the website can be 'read out' to interested parties who may not be able to read but who can comprehend the spoken word. The third component of the software suite is iSpeech, a speech recognition program using an isolated word recognition technique. It is designed to convert speech inputs into text—that is, the user can just talk into a microphone connected to his or her personal computer and iSpeech will convert the voice data into text. Parsit, Vaja and iSpeech can be combined to create a 'speech-to-speech' translation application with wide ranging potential for development, especially in the tourism industry. First, a spoken English sentence is fed through iSpeech which then generates text in English. The English text is then passed on to Parsit for translation into Thai language text. Finally, the Thai text is input into Vaja for conversion into audio sounds in the Thai language.
While NECTEC's efforts are focused on Thailand, the PAN Localization Project, which is supported by IDRC's Pan Asia Networking Program, the National University of Computer and Emerging Science, Pakistan and its Centre for Research in Urdu Language Processing, is a multi-agency, multi-country effort to solve language localization issues across countries in Asia Pacific, including Afghanistan (Pashto, Dari), Bangladesh (Bangla), Bhutan (Dzongkha), Cambodia (Khmer), Laos (Lao), Nepal (Nepali) and Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil). It aims to develop character sets, fonts, lexica, spelling and grammar checkers, search and replace utilities, speech recognition systems, text-to-speech synthesis and machine translation for these languages. Different aspects of localization technology that will be addressed include linguistic standardization, computing applications, development platforms, content publishing and access, effective marketing and dissemination and intellectual property right strategies for the output products.
Other regional language translation activities include the English-to-Malay translator being developed by the University Sains Malaysia and the collaboration between NECTEC, Thailand and a private Japanese company on machine language translation. Globally, there are also Internet-based language translation tools such as Yahoo's Babel Fish (http://babelfish.yahoo.com/) and Google's language translation service (http://www.google.com/translate_t) that can be brought into service.
The Asia Pacific region is the home of some really innovative mobile applications that have captured the attention of the world. The Philippines is recognized as one of the heaviest and most innovative users of SMS in the world. Paul Budde, an Australian telecommunications analyst, noted that in 2006, some 250 million SMSs were sent in the Philippines every day accounting for about 10 per cent of the world's SMS. One reason for the popularity of the text service is the fact that it is much more affordable than the voice service. It costs only 1 peso per SMS while a normal voice call can cost up to 20 pesos per minute. One of the most innovative uses of SMS in the Philippines is for small-value financial transactions. It is possible to pay for goods and services, transfer money from person to person and even donate money using SMS. For example, many Filipinos working overseas use SMS to transfer money to loved ones at home. The SMS channel is also being used as an information network by fishermen and flower farmers in outlying areas to get the latest prices in the city so that they can match supply to demand and obtain the best prices for their products. The Philippine government is another heavy user of SMS: it uses the channel to broadcast information to certain targeted groups and to obtain feedback from citizens. Specific channels for people to lodge complaints on air pollution and corruption, for example, and to give feedback to key decision-makers, including the President of the country, have been created.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, an innovative mobile phone application is called 'Solat Times' or 'Prayer Times' to help the Muslim population get their timing for prayers accurately. To use Solat Times, a person sends an SMS to request the Muslim prayer time and he or she will be informed by a return SMS the officially sanctioned prayer times appropriate for his or her particular location. This unique application which makes use of SMS and location information has now been exported to the United Kingdom and South Africa.