Is Microsoft Swahili Version Failing?


When Microsoft announced in 2003 that it had launched a Kiswahili version of their Microsoft Office applications, linguists saw it as a big triumph for the language - and a chance to make its speakers have a feel of the emerging technology and in their own language.

However, five years later, the roar has turned into a whimper.

Microsoft is not forthcoming with answers, but a debate is shaping up on what may have gone wrong.

"It failed miserably on the roll out process because Microsoft never pushed the product," says Mr Patrick Opiyo, managing director of Rivotex Kenya, a consulting dealer for Microsoft Technologies, who was then Microsoft's localisation manager.

Mr Isaiah Okoth, who was at the time the general manager of Microsoft East Africa, said the new Kiswahili office application, if marketed well, would have allowed many Kiswahili speakers to experience personal computing in their home language.

It had taken close to two years to develop the programme at a cost of Sh8 million, drawing linguistic experts from East and Central Africa. The programme was headed by Prof Kulikoyela Kahigi of the University of Dar- es- Salaam.

Kiswahili experts translated over 700,000 words in Windows and Office software while close to 70,000 words were translated in the help manuals.

The final product was targeted at about 150 million speakers of the language in the world.

"Technology should find itself into the language. Microsoft invented words that did not exist to fit the technology, and the problem with this is that people don't understand the Kiswahili used in the Microsoft Office applications," explains Mr Alex Gakuru, director of ICT Consumer Association.

Another major issue was the methodology used to develop the application. Peter Mugambi, Dean of Humanities at Kenyatta University, says the project was more of a 'private affair' than an institutional one.

Although the process of changing to Kiswahili version is simple , the software has not been utilised in Kiswahili departments in major universities including Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi.

By simply downloading a Language Interface Pack ( LIP), from the Internet, free of charge, users of genuine versions of Microsoft Office 2003, can localize their interface by installing the LIP.

It then turns Microsoft Office, including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint from English into Kiswahili. The beauty of the product is that one can switch back to the language of choice with ease.

"With the Kiswahili LIP, computer users are able to instal a Kiswahili desktop version as a 'skin' on top of existing installations of Windows and standard Microsoft Office applications," said the consulting dealer for Microsoft Technologies.

Currently, the Kiswahili LIP is also available to Windows XP.

Analysts say the biggest issue that made the hefty exercise a major fiasco was the lack of promotion for the product.

University of Nairobi linguist and prolific author, Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, doubts whether he would have known about the project had he not been part of it; casting more doubt if the programme was marketed well.

There was also a conflict of policy between open source and proprietorship. Mr Gakuru says the approach Microsoft took was academic instead of looking at the programme as a community based issue, a move that would have resulted to community ownership of the product.

Business Daily