IBM’s Toronto lab fixes the world’s Web sites

MARKHAM, Ont. — Organizations that want to succeed in today’s global market need to make sure their software translates well into other cultures. And that means more than mastering the words, said a team of IBM experts Tuesday at IBM’s

Toronto software lab.

“”When people first think of globalization they usually think of translation,”” said lab director Martin Wildberger. “”We’ve largely recognized that if you are building products for a global market, you build them understanding the global market has different drivers. The language and the currency are the most obvious ones that come to mind, but then you start going into business process differences and you get into cultural differences.””

For example, said Wildberger, it may not be appropriate in all cultures to ask for a user’s middle name in order to register or complete a transaction over the Internet.

“”There are business process differences and then you start getting into the computational aspect — things like how you do the sorting and the calendar, date and time, and different formats in the system, so it’s a very complex problem,”” said Wildberger.

Wildberger said IBM, which formed a national language technical centre in 1984 to develop products for customers around the world, merged the centre in 2000 with other centres of expertise to form the worldwide globalization centre of competency, which focuses on education, technical consulting and development of reusable resources and standards.

The Toronto centre is viewed globally as the “”godfather of globalization,”” he added.

“”We learned you can’t do this retrofit, or if you do it’s very expensive,”” said Wildberger. “”You’re talking about fundamental data structures and algorithms in your software; you’re talking about ways of making it so it’s easy to scale and therefore you have to figure out how to do it up front.””

But while the main drivers for organizations to globalize their software are to expand your market and to extend your global operations, there are other reasons even closer to home that require companies to be able to communicate well with other cultures, said Thierry Mayeur, senior product marketing manager for IBM’s corporate globalization team.

“”Globalization is not always going across borders,”” he said.

Mayeur said many organizations, particularly those that are Toronto-based, are finding they need to be able to reach out to many communities within their own regions, whether customers, partners, suppliers or employees. TD Canada Trust, for example, he said, makes its Web site available in Chinese and Japanese as well as in English. And U.S. companies may want to first serve their Hispanic communities before tailoring their e-commerce offerings for the Canadian market, he added.

But if you do try to go across borders, he said, you had better make sure your software works well for the market you’ve moved into. That means products must be properly translated, but it also means getting little things right, such as making sure your postal code conventions work.

Despite the fact that English is still the language of business, user preference for non-English content on the Web is on the rise, he said, citing Forrester Research statistics. That’s the case in places such as China and Latin America, where more people continue to get connected, but it’s also the case in places such as Western Europe, which has seen a “”nationalistic wave”” resulting in fewer citizens who speak English as a second language, and in Japan, where English is not widely spoken.

“”In Japan, there is a very strong Japanese culture and don’t even try to do business in English because you will fail,”” he said.

One of the lessons Mayeur learned when working at Lotus before it was acquired by IBM was that beeping software does not go over well in Japan. Mayeur explained that when the first Japanese release of Lotus 1-2-3 was shipped, Japanese workers were embarrassed by the beeping that occurred when they accessed certain parts of the application.

“”We learned you cannot do that because a beep means you’ve made a mistake, so you are showing your colleagues you have made a mistake,”” said Mayeur. “”We were embarrassing the Japanese customers so we had to recall the products and take out the beep. These are the types of things you didn’t think about 25 years ago.””

On top of the cultural and language issues related to globalization, said Carol Stock, manager of IBM’s globalization centre of competency, there are a whole host of technical issues that arise when companies such as IBM try to make a single product suitable for many countries.

“”If I’m presenting information in a different language how do I store it, and how do I order it in a fashion that is going to be recognizable to the person searching for that information?”” she said.

In addition, other issues that need to be considered include things such as numeric formatting. If a European customer places an online order for 1,000 items and the confirmation is presented as 1,000, they may think they are confirming the purchase of one item only due to the different use of commas in Europe.

Developers need to keep in mind whether the target language is single or multibyte — Asian languages are multibyte — and whether the icons they have used are truly easily recognizable worldwide. As well, issues related to fonts and bidirectional script must be taken into account, she said.

“”There are all kinds of aspects related to character sets and encoding,”” she said. “”How do you transfer data between systems to make sure you maintain the integrity of that data?””

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