During a gruelling interview at the All Things Digital conference, on May 28th, Walt Mossberg cut off the Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook mid-sentence to raise an uncomfortable subject for the company. “There is a level of control that you exercise—curation, one might say, not just in your app store but in other things,” Mossberg said. He then gave an example: Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, offers a single keyboard, in a tightly controlled number of languages, whereas Google’s Android, iOS’s biggest competitor in the phone market, allows user-developed changes—including multilingual keyboards—to be integrated with the operating system. With Android, “third parties can actually give you a choice,” Mossberg said. “Have you given any thought to a little bit less control?” It’s a question the endangered-language advocates of FirstVoices, a digital-technology initiative based in British Columbia, have been asking for three years.
Last June, FirstVoices launched an iPhone app that allows indigenous-language speakers to text, e-mail, and chat on Facebook and Google Talk in their own languages. Users can select from keyboards serving more than a hundred languages; the app supports every indigenous language in North America and Australia. (By default, iOS supports just two: Cherokee and Hawaiian.) The app accomplishes this through mimicry. When a text box is selected, a keyboard identical in form and function to iOS’s appears. The keyboard includes the characters necessary to write in, say, Cree, and follows a layout unique to the chosen language. (Cree’s equivalent of QWERTY would be ᐃᐱᑎᑭᒋᒥ). But the keyboards cannot exist outside of FirstVoices’s app. You can’t use it while surfing the Web; using it for e-mail is complicated. In this sense, the keyboards, like many of the languages they represent, are marginalized.[Read more]