Microsoft: Death by a Thousand Languages?

Microsoft likes to make a big deal of how global a company it is, and for good reason. The company now makes more money from outside the US than from within. But the company still has a long way to go before it is truly a global company and, as this CNET News article makes clear, the company may face a tough road getting there.

Right now, the company offers its operating system in 47 languages. This is no simple feat — localizing software into a new language can easily exceed a million dollars in engineering and translation costs. But at 47 languages, Microsoft is still only serving a small portion of the world; there are more than a thousand languages in use today.

As the CNET article points out, most small and emerging markets have been overlooked by the folks at Microsoft.

Enter OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s office software suite. A grassroots effort has been gradually localizing the software for more than 30 languages, with many more on the way — from Basque to Kinyarwanda (Rwanda).


With open source software, anybody with the time and expertise can assist with software localization. So what we are witnessing are people volunteering their time to do something that Microsoft won’t spend a dime on — creating software for people who don’t speak a major language. This is a noble cause and one that will inevitably add to the growing global resentment toward Microsoft.

While I can understand why a company decides that the ROI (return on investment) of software localization doesn’t add up for certain markets, I don’t understand how Microsoft can justify turning its head, given how many billions of dollars it has stashed in the bank. In one year, the company could localize its Office suite into 100+ languages without breaking much of a sweat, yet it doesn’t, and in not doing so it opens the door a little wider to open source software — software that one day may lead to the downfall of Microsoft as we know it.

PS: If you’d like to join the open source localization effort, go to:

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