Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Being at home with your software

Software localization – making software feel Canadian – is a subtle task

[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.07.08, 2009.03.05]

“Personal” computers aren’t called that for nothing: Using a computer becomes increasingly intimate as you become ever more familiar with the features of your hardware and software. Though the industry is dominated by Americans, software and hardware companies take pains to adapt products so they “feel” natural in different countries and languages. And in Canada, this process of “localization” takes on nuances not found elsewhere.

Consider, for example, Canada’s official bilingualism. On paper, the fact that English and French are spoken elsewhere in the world should allow software companies to spread the costs of customizing software over a large population base. But Canada’s official languages differ subtly from English and French as used elsewhere. Canadian English employs an amalgam of American and British spellings: We write honour and glamour with a U (a British influence) but recognize and organize with a Z (an American influence). Though we use metric measurement, we also use American paper sizes (letter, legal), not European ones (A4, B5). When we write dates numerically, we prefer day/month/year: 3/7/93 is July 3, not March 7.

Canadian French uses vocabulary uncommon in Europe (Saskatchewan, souveraineté-association), allows accents on capital letters, and has its own way of notating currencies ($12,345.67 in English orthography becomes

12 345,67 $
in French). Oddly, French-language software – estimated at 8% to 12% of the Canadian market – comes closer to the goal of feeling completely natural than English software. Products intended for users in France are different enough from French-Canadian requirements to justify a thorough localization, while anglophone users in Canada can often settle for an American or British variant.

“Typically what we do is import the U.S. English version,” notes Les Miyata of IBM Canada Ltd. “Obviously if the English is close enough and it’s Ivory-soap percentage, 99 44/100% pure,” then anglophone users are satisfied. “Typically we’ve had a bigger challenge supporting our Canadian French market.” French versions of software such as IBM’s OS/2 operating system usually arrive within 30 days of the English release.

Over at Lotus Development Canada Ltd., the time lag is only a couple of weeks, though less-popular titles like the Macintosh version of Lotus 1-2-3 are available only in English, according to Thierry Mayeur, Canadian product manager. All Canadian Lotus products with spell-checkers come standard with British, U.S., and Canadian French dictionaries. Mayeur estimates the cost of localizing software at $300,000 to $800,000 per language.

One localization option is to include multiple languages in all software versions. Radius Inc. does this for the software that controls one of its monitors, which automatically manifests itself in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, or Japanese depending on the language of your computer system. Providing separate versions is “really beyond possibility for someone like us,” says Maire Kushner, Radius’s general manager in Toronto. “It would mean us opening up every box and putting [customized] software in it. And who’s to say that everyone in France wants to use French?”

Localizing computer hardware usually entails a different keyboard, power cable (power supplies are universal in most modern computers), and instruction manuals. Though Apple Canada Inc. offers customized Canadian French versions of its Macintosh line, anglophone Canadians are stuck with the U.S. version. (The Mac may be the localized personal computer, with 35 versions ranging from Icelandic, Russian, and Turkish to two flavours of English and three of French.)

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