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Internationalizing Web Apps

While I was in Brasil one thing I noticed was that the Gmail login screen was in Portuguese (and then once I logged in my interface was in English). This got me to thinking about web apps and the huge potential to internationalize them. I would predict that we see increased efforts to internationalize web apps in the next several years. As products mature and product adaptation rates level, developers will look elseware for more customers.

It’s not just about providing another language:

  1. Language — You need to find a translator who can both translate and provide cultural nuance advice.
  2. Payment — Check with your payment gateway and your bank about accepting payment by credit card in a foreign currency and be sure to watch the exchange rate closely.
  3. Support — Here’s where it gets tricky: at some level you need to provide support in the languages you provide. This is more easily done if your web app is already making a healthy profit and you expect growth in that country, however it will by far be the biggest obstacle to internationalization and the most expensive.
  4. Marketing — Don’t forget to target foreign keywords in your search marketing and be sure to provide email newsletters and marketing materials in the languages you service. At the same time, care should be taken to have stock photos that fit your demographic.

Providing support will be the biggest hurdle and that’s probably why internationalization is overlooked by small web application developers, however, the economic impact could be significant.

Market size by language (native language):

  • Spanish — 332 million
  • Portuguese — 200 million
  • Chinese — 1080 million
  • Russian — 145 million
  • French — 109 million
  • German — 101 million
  • English — 322 million

By Chris Tingom

Principal of Tornado Design, a Phoenix, AZ based web consultancy

8 replies on “Internationalizing Web Apps”

Of the four points mentioned, the first is the hardest: supporting multiple languages in an application. It’s a deep problem, completely dependent on the nature of the application.

This is about 85% of what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half for a giant Java web app. It’s a pain but maybe now I could do localization consulting only… that would be a viable business idea.

That market isn’t necessarily web users. I think in China for example, it might be 10% of the population number you gave here. Would be interesting to see the actual web-ified population numbers.

Bryan: Django’s i18n support is pretty smooth. You just have to keep in mind to write your strings like _(‘This is a message.’). This is already 99% of the infrastructural work and you can start translating. I am pretty new to Django, currently implementing a prototype app in it, in-between all the “ooh”s and “aah”s about its simplicity and elegance and the ever-present question why we didn’t do it exactly this way in the past 10 years.

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