Kumar Rangarajan was driving when he heard his daughter call out to the car speaker. “Alexa, lower the volume,” she said. Now, the car wasn’t really the domain of Alexa—Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant—and the volume didn’t come down, but the moment stayed with Rangarajan. In fact, it was instrumental to his shift from the US to India to start Slang Labs with co-founders Giridhar Murthy and Satish Gupta. “I was really unimpressed by Alexa initially. Then one day I found myself trying to switch off the lights in my house by telling the voice assistant to do it. That’s when I realised that voice could be the future of interfacing,” he says.
Slang Labs, which offers a voice-recognition application that, simply put, makes apps responsive to voice commands, isn’t Rangarajan’s first venture. In 2012, his Little Eye Labs became the first Indian company to be acquired by Facebook. At Little Eye Labs, Rangarajan and his team had figured out how to optimise an app’s performance on Google’s mobile operating system, Android. “At the time we were building this, engineers in India weren’t even looking at testing their apps for performance. They thought it would be too cumbersome to test it across platforms. They only relied on analytics to judge their app’s performance,” says Rangarajan. Little Eye Labs broke that culture amongst developers.
With Little Eye Labs, Rangarajan correctly predicted in 2012 that most online activity would move onto mobile interfaces, away from PCs and desktops. “At that time, Flipkart was just launching its website, and Ola and Uber had not entered the market yet,” he says. Facebook’s subsequent acquisition of Little Eye Labs vindicated Rangarajan’s vision, thus putting an early stamp of approval on his ability to read headwinds.
Little Eye Labs reduced the inefficiencies within apps. With Slang Labs, his newest venture, Rangarajan wants to go a step further—he wants to make them listen and talk. This isn’t some punt in the dark. The opportunity is clear as day.
Despite all its promises of turning digital, India ranks a lowly 47 out of 86 countries when it comes to internet inclusivity, according to a report by The Economist. Not a good sign for the majority of India’s 1.1 billion-plus population. According to experts, a major reason for this is the lack of multilingual support for internet interfaces, products, and services. By 2021, Indian language users will amount to 536 million people—close to four times the size of India’s English-speaking internet user market.
According to a KPMG report, some of the Indian language internet users are already transacting and surfing the web in their own languages. It estimates that the Indian language user base in digital payments and e-tailing will grow at a CAGR of 26% to 33% over the next five years, pulling in a new 120 million language users over the next five years.