Mozilla and mobile operators want to make the web more global and diverse

Firefox-maker Mozilla and the GSMA mobile operator trade body are teaming up to help develop more non-English content for the web, so as to “positively shape” the future of the mobile web – and they’re looking for others to join them.

As the organizations explained in a Tuesday whitepaper, around 56 percent of current web content is in English, even though that’s the first language of just 5 percent of the world’s population. Some of the most widely-spoken languages are, proportionally speaking, barely represented: 0.8 percent of web content is in Arabic and less than 0.1 percent in Hindi.

That’s obviously largely down to where the web first flourished, but it does represent a big problem for the web’s development. As the whitepaper states:

Even if we solve key issues like access, affordability and efficiency, what will the next wave of users find when they get online? Will it interest them? Will it be a place where they can access and create content that has a meaningful impact on their lives?

The organizations also noted that the emerging markets promise big opportunities for both mobile operators (hence the GSMA’s interest) and challengers to the Google-Apple duopoly (hence the interest of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox OS platform). If there’s more localized mobile content, the logic goes, there’s more opportunity for social development and more money to be made, too.

ZTE OpenSo Mozilla and the GSMA are conducting field tests in Kenya, Brazil, India and Bangladesh, that involve the creation of local content, digital literacy training and the use of low-cost (presumably Firefox OS) smartphones.

The whitepaper is a bit fuzzy on what this work entails, but it does mention Mozilla’s Webmaker tool for authoring smartphone content, and the possibility of mobile operators “exposing their core capabilities through Network APIs to third parties” so as to “position themselves as leaders in innovation and to be a rich source of content to subscribers.” The organizations are looking for device manufacturers, educators, development donors and NGOs to also get involved.

In principle, I do like the sound of this push, particularly as it’s focused on the development and diversification of the open web – mobile web, specifically, but that’s a given when we’re talking about people for whom their smartphone is their first computer. Web content has a lower barrier to entry than apps do, and it also benefits from not being platform-dependent. What benefits users of a Firefox OS device will also benefit users of Android and iOS and Windows Phone devices, as well as those with desktop machines.

What’s more, I firmly believe that a more diverse web will benefit those in the English-speaking world too, by exposing us to different cultures, views and needs. Speaking as a South African, I sometimes feel that web services are mostly geared towards one, western-centric way of life. If this is the case, it’s hardly a surprise that authoritarian leaders decry the internet/web as some kind of western hegemonic plot, even if they’re only using that as an excuse to minimize the threat of unrestricted information to their own positions of power.

A truly diverse and global web would, I’d hope, reduce calls for the fragmentation and censorship of the web. Funnily enough, the more people use it, the less they want to see it clamped down upon. New opportunities tend to have that effect.