As multinational companies extend their reach across the globe, does their quest for a single market make cookie-cutter consumers of us all?
Antiglobalization protesters at venues such as last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, give voice to the fear that as the world gets smaller, it will be more easily shaped by the rich and powerful. But in Ireland, a thriving industry has sprung up that gives globalization a more human face - more easily recognized and thus more easily accepted.
Critics call it stealth marketing or globalization in sheep's clothing. But here, it's embraced as "localization." Branches of software giants such as Microsoft take popular programs - spreadsheets, games, and word processors - and adapt them for different cultures and languages. This little-known business has grown to make Ireland the world's top software exporter. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, software exports from the Emerald Isle were worth $3.29 billion in 1998 - the most recent figure available - compared with $2.96 billion for the United States. Currently the high-tech industry accounts for between a quarter and a third of Ireland's gross domestic product, according to analysts.
"Localization is one of the mechanics of globalization," says Wendy Hamilton, a vice president of Bowne Global Solutions, which offers localization services to software publishers.
At its simplest, localization is translation - taking Microsoft Word, for example, and translating all the online help, all the error messages, all the words that appear in toolbars and everything else into another language.
It's not always simple. Sometimes, says Breda Pickering, head of a localization team at Microsoft's office here, software designers don't leave enough room in their code, and the translation of a message such as "hit enter to continue" will crash the program.
And translation isn't enough. "The challenge is not just to translate but to make the product feel as if it is a German- or Dutch-originated product" to a German or Dutch customer, says Brian Kelly, head of European operations for Berlitz GlobalNET, a localizing company based in Dublin, Ireland.
In Japan, for example, engineers had to change word-processing programs that "ping" users if they try something that is not possible. Japanese office workers were mortified that coworkers could hear when they made mistakes. The "ping" was taken out.
Companies selling in different markets have many sensitivities to take into account. If you buy the American or British English versions of Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, for example, you will learn that the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. In the Italian version, this achievement is credited to rival pioneer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi.
Lifting cultural barriers
The Windows operating system is sold in 25 different languages, which Ms. Pickering sees as liberating and empowering people worldwide. "If everything was in English, it would limit workforce opportunities terribly," she says. "Why should a secretary in France not get a job just because she can't use Word in English?"
Localizing programs, she argues, "goes a long way towards meeting" the antiglobalization protesters' criticisms that companies such as Microsoft and its market-dominating software are vectors for Anglo-American culture and language.
Some see localization as the only way to bridge the "digital divide" between the information world's haves and have-nots, when the vast majority of software is designed in English. "The localization industry is ideally positioned to help achieve the inclusive multilingual information society," says Reinhard Schaler, who teaches the world's only degree course in localization at Limerick University in Ireland.
Mere Windows dressing?
Others wonder whether the diversity that localization brings is not just cosmetic. "You could say that being local reflects cultural sensitivity, or you could say that it enables companies like Microsoft to create a 95 percent market share for a product," says Rose Lockwood, head of research for Berlitz GlobalNET.
Yahoo, for example, is among the top three portals in nearly every country in Europe because in each country, its site has a local look. Localization "is a very powerful market play by these US companies," says Ms. Lockwood.
No one suggests that companies localize their products or websites out of mere altruism. "They don't do it because they want to respect cultural diversity, they do it because [their products] wouldn't sell otherwise," says Ms. Hamilton bluntly.
As international commerce moves increasingly - if haphazardly - onto the Internet, companies are having to decide on their Web strategies, says Mr. Kelly. The chief challenge, he says, is where to draw the line between maintaining a consistent corporate identity worldwide and making a website feel local and friendly.
The Internet "gives you more flexibility, because it is cheaper to create a separate website than a new product" such as Encarta, says Willem Mevius, a software engineer on Microsoft's reference-works team in Dublin. "The Internet will give us the chance to enhance cultural differentiation because we'll be able to focus more on individual countries."
How many countries will it be worth Microsoft's while to focus on, though? Using just nine languages, a company can reach 95 percent of today's planetary Web audience, says Lockwood.
At the same time, she adds, "The whole consciousness of the need to be multicultural is becoming much more pervasive. Global companies are beginning to absorb that, and once you are in nine languages it is much easier to be in 30."
If the Internet becomes the medium of choice in the information age, "any language that cannot be accommodated on the Web will be between a rock and a hard place in 10 years' time," Lockwood warns. And being accommodated on the Web means being accommodated on platforms such as Windows.
Iceland joins info highway
Two years ago, Iceland's government and people demanded that Microsoft localize its programs into Icelandic. There was no economic justification - Iceland's total population numbers barely 270,000 - but the Seattle-based giant agreed, under pressure, and one of the world's most ancient written languages has secured its place in the future.
"The moral," says Hamilton, "is the importance of local cultures sticking up for themselves." Because then, translating road signs on the information highway "will be a good business decision."
Where mountains, flags, and tortillas spell trouble
How high is Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak?
The accepted answer depends on whose scientists are holding the measuring stick, and Microsoft is careful not to ruffle any feathers in its Encarta encyclopedia. If you buy the French version - the one with Napoleon on the pack - the mountain is listed as 4,808 meters (15,770 feet) high. If you buy the Dutch version, you'll find it is only 4,807 meters. And since the Italians have always believed it is 4,810 meters, that is what the Italian version of Encarta says.
It's one of several items of contention that cropped up, as English-language computer software was rewritten, translated, and customized for different markets.
Microsoft could have done with a bit more localization on one of its Spanish dictionaries, which was put together in Madrid. There, tortillera means "lesbian," and that's all the dictionary said, until an editor in Mexico City spotted the entry and protested. Now, the tortilla ladies found on street corners throughout Mexico are shown due respect.
The Saudi Arabian importer of another piece of software, however, may have wished for a more generic approach. To show that the CD-ROM was designed for the Saudi market, the manufacturer put the Saudi flag on the box. Only the flag bears the word "Allah" - and for devout Muslims, throwing the box away would have meant showing disrespect for God.
The distributor ended up with a lot of empty boxes taking up a lot of space.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society