This primer provides a broad perspective on the localization of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) for the benefit of policy- and decision-makers in developing countries. It highlights the benefits and strategies of FOSS localization, along with case studies from various countries that are on the road to software freedom.
The primer begins with an introduction to localization and the benefits of choosing FOSS over proprietary software. The next section provides a survey of initiatives and efforts in localization of FOSS within the Asia-Pacific region, including best practices and lessons learned specifically in countries such as Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, India and Malaysia. The primer also provides three case studies of localization efforts in Thailand, Lao PDR and Cambodia, as well as recommendations on technical issues, resource allocation, skills and tools, implementation, costs and language considerations.
To help localizers get started, two annexes regarding key concepts and the technical aspects of localization are provided. These are intended for project managers and implementers who are planning software localization projects.
Computers, English, and Local Users
It is almost impossible to use a computer if you cannot read the instructions, buttons and menus. Thus it is not surprising that many countries in Asia lag behind Europe and America in the adoption and use of modern computer technologies at work, in schools, and in the home.
Computers don't have to display everything in English. In fact, the computer "doesn't care" what language is displayed, since everything is ultimately converted into ones and zeros. Even if the display is translated into another language, the computer continues to operate as before.
Translating software is nothing new. This process, which is known as 'localization', is not technically difficult. However, it requires professional management, a team of translators, and financial resources, especially for the initial translations.
Commercial companies have localized software for specific markets. Typically, they recoup their costs by charging license fees for the localized versions of their software. In countries where the average citizen cannot afford to pay the fees, they either do without localized software or resort to illegal copying.
All countries want the benefits of localized software, but some cannot afford the expensive licenses. With FOSS, this problem is solved. A combination of policies that encourage software localization/translation into different languages and the ready availability of FOSS, presents an ideal means for expanding computer use worldwide.
Now is the time for developing countries to embrace the FOSS movement, and accelerate their adoption of computing technology by localizing FOSS.
Localization is the process of adapting, translating and customizing a product (software) for a specific market (for a specific locale or cultural conventions; the locale usually determines conventions such as sort order, keyboard layout, date, time, number and currency formats). In terms of software localization, this means the production of interfaces that are meaningful and comprehensible to local users.
The Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA) defines localization as: "Localization involves taking a product and making it linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target locale (country/region and language) where it will be used and sold." Typically, this involves the translation of the user interface (the messages a program presents to users) to enable them to create documents and data, modify them, print them, send them by e-mail, etc.
Technically localizing FOSS is no different from localizing commercial software. Fonts must be changed, keyboard layouts devised, and standards adopted. The difference is price and licensing. With FOSS, the price is lower and the license open to all. For saving money and time, nurturing local innovation, and combating illegal copying of software, FOSS localization is a better alternative.
The Importance of Localization
Currently, people who want to use computers must first learn English. In a country with low literacy rates, this blocks access to information and communications technologies (ICTs), especially for the rural poor and women who do not have equal access to education. Even after having learnt English, users must pay hundreds of dollars to license foreign software, or resort to widespread illegal copying of software, in order to gain access to ICTs. In short, access to information technology is one of the keys to development, and localized FOSS applications remain a crucial missing link in communications infrastructure.
Localization brings the following benefits:
- Significantly reduces the amount of training necessary to empower end-users to use a computer system.
- Facilitates the introduction of computer technology in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).
- Opens the way for the development of computer systems for a country's national, provincial and district level administration that will allow civil servants to work entirely in the local language and manage databases of local language names and data.
- Facilitates the decentralization of data at provincial and district levels. The same applies to utility companies (electricity, water, telephone), who will develop local language databases, thereby reducing costs and giving better service to citizens.
- Allows citizens to communicate through e-mail in their own language.
- Empowers local software development companies to work for the administration, the public sector and private companies.
- Provides the local design industry with good fonts.
- Helps universities train more software engineers.
The beneficiaries of this multi-stakeholder project are:
- Directly, all local computer users, who will have easier access to the use of computers as they will not have to learn English first.
- Indirectly, through improvements in governance using native computer systems, all local citizens in the quality of their dealings with the administration.
- The local government who will have the opportunity to develop databases and applications in the local language. Sufficient technology and empowered local development companies will be available. The government will also have the tool to coordinate applications among similar administrations (e.g., provinces), so that IT-based improvements in governance can be made at the lowest possible cost.
- The software industry. The government's use of standards-compliant computer technology encourages software companies to start developing compatible computer systems that will be used by the different bodies of the administration, thereby creating a stable software industry in the country. Once this expertise is developed (using FOSS), these companies will be empowered to undertake similar projects for foreign companies at extremely competitive prices, facilitating sales beyond the local market.
What is Free/Open Source Software?
The last decade witnessed a phenomenon which in the preceding one would have been thought of as impossible. A community of volunteer computer scientists has developed computer operating systems, advanced user interfaces (desktops), and a number of applications that compete in quality, appearance and robustness with some of the most advanced proprietary software (such as Microsoft Windows).
The term "free" in Free/Open Source Software refers to freedom to use, study, modify and share the software. The freedom to share FOSS implies that it can be used and translated by people without their having to pay any fees. However, some software that can be used without having to pay user fees, such as 'shareware' or 'freeware', cannot be studied, modified or shared, which means that they are not FOSS.
A growing number of European national and local administrations have developed or are developing policies to promote the use of FOSS instead of proprietary systems and tools. This not only gives them independence from commercial vendors, but also nurtures their own software development industries.
There is little doubt now that FOSS is viable and of high quality. Therefore, many governments are choosing FOSS for localization.
What is GNU/Linux?
GNU/Linux is a free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds and the GNU Project with the assistance of thousands of volunteer developers around the world. It is the most popular FOSS. Developed under the GNU General Public License, the source code for GNU/Linux is freely available to everyone. And one does not have to pay a licensing fee to download and use it. It is robust and secure, and it has no "hidden" features, because the source code is publicly available. Unlike proprietary operating systems, thousands of developers across the globe can inspect the code, identify vulnerabilities, provide security patches, contribute improvements and therefore historically GNU/Linux systems cannot be easily compromised by attackers.
Why Localize FOSS?
It is an acknowledged fact that the near-monopoly of English language software, controlled by English speaking companies, does not serve the long-term needs of any country. Microsoft and a few other large US corporations dominate the international software market, earning large profits and wielding enormous power. For those with limited funds, the burden of paying for proprietary software means less money for other programmes of vital importance, as well as giving up linguistic freedom.
While proprietary software is often of the highest quality, policy-makers worldwide know that it carries a high risk of dependence on commercial corporations. If a corporation decides to no longer support software in another language, only those who are fluent in English would be able to operate computers effectively. And when local ICT professionals become proficient in both computers and English, they are quickly lured away from home, leading to a "brain-drain" that can damage a developing country for generations to come.
Key Advantages of FOSS Localization
- Reduced reliance on imports.
- No need for local users to learn English first.
- Local programmers gain expertise and experience.
- Local control over software appearance and functionality.
- New local technical standards and educational opportunities.
- Establishment of a local software industry. It is difficult for foreigners to do localization as they do not normally have an intuitive feel for the local language and therefore the language is compromised in most cases.
- National policy on local content would not be dependent on the availability of proprietary software or hardware.
- Localization of applications can be prioritized according to the national needs.
- Languages that are nationally important but financially unfeasible can be used.
Disadvantages of Proprietary Software
- Expensive to license and maintain.
- Dominated by the English language.
- Controlled by foreign corporations.
- Dependent on proprietary or closed standards.
- Has little or no local support.
- The high cost of the software leads to illegal copying of the software.
- The local software industry is not developed.
- Software cannot be localized or modified.
FOSS is generally much more secure than proprietary or closed source software. In the words of Peruvian Congressman Villanueva, "To guarantee national security, the State must be able to rely on systems without elements controlled from a distance. Systems with open source code allow the State and citizens to inspect the code themselves and check for back doors and spyware." 
Certainly, in an uncertain and sometimes dangerous world, few governments can afford to risk their information infrastructure security by relying on the goodwill of a secretive organization (such as a commercial software company) that they cannot control.
- The Localization Industry Primer, LISA - The Localization Industry Standards Association, 2nd Edition, 2003; available from http://www.lisa.org/interact/LISAprimer.pdf .
- The OSS advocacy report: Peruvian Congressman Responds to Microsoft', March 10, 2002; available from http://mt/Pubdomain_Bread/archivist/000013.html