First-time computer users who are daunted by a barrage of alien terms and technologies will find the learning process far easier as Microsoft finally converts its most popular software to Zulu, Setswana and Afrikaans.

Schools, community centres, government bodies and individuals can download the software to convert the popular Windows XP operating system into user-friendly native languages.

The programs sit on top of the system and translate 400000 words and phrases, including all menu items, tool bars, help files and error messages.

The Zulu version will be launched in eThekwini today, with the Setswana version due in May and Afrikaans in June.

Versions in the other seven official languages will probably be finished only for the new Vista operating system next year.

Microsoft had been preparing local-language software for about two years, as the process took far longer than expected, says Gordon Frazer, its MD in SA.

"We are pretty excited about it. It's something we have been working on for some time in partnership with a lot of people because we had to deliver linguistically correct versions."

Although some open-source software is already available in a handful of African languages, until now there has been little to cater for the 90% of PCs running the dominant Windows operating system.

The first word processors in Zulu, Sepedi and Afrikaans were released by the Zuza Software Foundation in 2004 so people could work in their mother tongues. Again, those programs took more than two years to develop, with Zuza founder Dwayne Bailey citing the difficulty in translating words such as spreadsheet or format.

Debates about how to translate phrases such as "your printer is not connected" were the main stumbling point for the Microsoft developers, too.

They consulted the Pan South African Language Board, the National Language Board, several universities, various communities and government's departments of science and technology, arts and culture, education and communications.

"We wanted to get consensus on the terms and terminology to protect the integrity of the languages. We didn't want to just say e-this and e-that," Frazer says.

But if there was no suitable translation some English words did sneak in, with Zulu users offered an "e-Internet" icon.

Frazer expects most demand for the software to come from new computer users.

"The benefit will be for first-time users who don't speak English and have a fear of PCs.

"I think we will see quite a big take-up in schools and in the 50 community computer centres we sponsor where English is an issue.

"But I don't know whether the provincial departments in KwaZulu-Natal will use the Zulu version rather than English."

The software can be downloaded for free from, but to reach people without internet access it will be distributed on CDs as well.

Microsoft will also supply it to schools around the country, building on its existing commitment to supply free software to every state school to increase SA's computer literacy.

"We are not looking at it from a commercial perspective. We see it as a way to make Windows more relevant to the local marketplace, and it's also part of our corporate citizenship."

Microsoft SA has spent more than R1m on the project so far, and will spend more.

Business Day