Just a garage band from Shanghai – Radical localization and the future of global enterprise

Asia has surpassed Europe as the destination of choice for many multinational businesses. According to Common Sense Advisory’s (CSA Research) annual review of the websites of over 2,300 leading corporations, Simplified Chinese is now the second most popular language (after English) for the websites of major enterprises, with 34% more sites than in Spanish and French. An additional 11 Asian languages are in the top 50, including Japanese (#4), Traditional Chinese (#9), Korean (#11) and Thai (#23). We also find that East Asian languages account for 21% of online gross domestic product (GDP) and 34.5% of online population, with a software market worth at least $12.5 billion per year.

As these economies grow, global companies are coming to realize that it isn’t enough to translate a few user interface (UI) strings, slap on a new red-and-gold color scheme and supply a few graphics with dragons and lanterns. These moves may make content accessible, but they are as stereotyped and clumsy as a site localized into English would be if everything were red, white and blue with eagles and Uncle Sam on every page. Increasingly, companies realize what they’ve known about Japan for many years: Asian markets are just as sophisticated and savvy as any in the United States or Europe. They demand the same level of care and design that their Western counterparts expect. Enterprises that take local requirements seriously will have a significant advantage over those that treat Asia as an afterthought.

As an example of how companies can take advantage of real engagement with local cultures, consider Apple’s release of GarageBand 10.1.2 (MacOS)/2.1.1 (iOS) on May 17, 2016. On its surface, this was a “sub-point” update of the sort reserved for minor bug fixes, but in this case Apple issued a press release about it. So what was different about this one? It activated support for several virtual instruments that play a major role in classical Chinese music:

The erhu, a two-string fiddle with a snakeskin resonator, plays a role similar to the violin in orchestras. This instrument is perhaps the most characteristically Chinese of all.

The pipa is a lute that occupies a musical role in Chinese music somewhat similar to that of the guitar in Western ensembles.

GarageBand’s Chinese percussion repertoire now includes gongs and drums that provide sounds and tunings not found in European-style drum kits.

Adding these instruments involved substantially more than just building in a few sound files and graphics. It required engineering new ways of interacting with the virtual instruments to mimic local playing styles and implementing scales used in Asian music. For example, tapping the “horse head” icon beneath the erhu produces an instrumental imitation of a neighing horse and the “flower” slider beneath the pipa controls Chinese-style tremolo plucking. Because GarageBand’s real function is to support sequencing and looping, Apple also added 300 loops using these instruments to make them accessible and integral to the software. In addition, Apple performed more traditional localization tasks. They added previously missing Chinese-language support to the UI.

The resulting app is one that should be equally at home for a garage band from Seattle and a C-pop band from Shanghai. The result is something different from both traditional software localization — which deals primarily with making functionality accessible — and transcreation. Apple didn’t just address issues of linguistic access and it didn’t reimagine GarageBand as something different for the Chinese market. Instead, it reached out and used Chinese culture to enrich a product with global distribution and made China equal to the United States and Europe.

At one level, Apple’s technical innovation was not particularly noteworthy: virtual world instruments are nothing new and synthesizers and sequencers have supported them for years, but in most cases they are expensive add-ons to systems that include Western instruments by default. At another level, however, this move is a radical one: most Apple users get these features for free. The instruments are enabled by default for Mac users everywhere and for iOS device owners in Greater China, but iOS users outside of the region can simply turn these instruments on in the app’s settings. Apple did not invest in this to sell a new product, but rather to increase the value of existing ones and to sell more of its hardware in the future. It is investing in localization for long-term gains.

This move shows how important Greater China has become to Apple. It is now Apple’s second-biggest market and is growing at three times the rate of Europe or the Americas. With this prominence, Apple has had to tread lightly. Chinese authorities recently shut down Apple’s iTunes movies and iBooks stores, allegedly because Apple released the film Ten Years — which the Chinese government sees as politically subversive — on iTunes in Hong Kong.

For a company as large as Apple, markets like China are essential if it is to sustain the levels of growth that Wall Street investors have come to expect. As analysts predict “peak iPhone,” Apple needs to find new reasons to attract users in international markets, users who have increasing levels of access to locally grown tech companies with their needs and interests in their DNA. Adding Chinese instruments is one step toward competing with them on their own turf.

These moves may also be part of a game of three-dimensional political chess. The Chinese Public Security Ministry has reportedly been demanding access to Apple’s source code for security features built into its products since 2014 – a request that Apple claims to have refused, and likely one of the reasons why Apple fought against US government demands to weaken encryption as well. As Apple faces these challenges, an act of cultural diplomacy like adding Chinese instruments to GarageBand may provide a way to reassure wary officials that the company is committed to China. Similarly, analysts see the computer and phone maker’s recent $1 billion investment in Chinese ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing not only as a way to improve the company’s transportation experience in advance of the rumored Apple Car but also as a way to improve relations with the Chinese government.

CSA Research sees three forms of localization in Apple’s support for Chinese instruments:

This striking act of “radical localization” projects an image of China’s importance to Apple users elsewhere in the world and keeps customers in Greater China happy. It also raises the bar for localization: No longer can competitors simply slap a Chinese UI onto an otherwise unlocalized product and call it good. Localization that goes beyond translation to re-envision how products relate to local markets puts a stake in the sand that other consumer-oriented companies will notice and emulate. It also shows just how important mobile platforms are becoming in enterprise strategy.

It exemplifies what we call “reverse localization.” Because the additional features are accessible to Apple fans everywhere, this move also reverses the normal US-centric approach to localization. In this case the United States is also a beneficiary of localization. Large multinational enterprises such as Apple and IBM are increasingly becoming polycentric, with research and development distributed across the globe and centers of excellence in many countries. Apple’s release of this version of GarageBand may be the first of many such moves as the United States becomes just one market among many, rather than the home market. In this context, market entry decisions take on even greater importance. In this context, US and European customers will find that they have greater choices than before.

It underscores the importance of localization for some of the largest and most forward-looking organizations as much more than just a linguistic function. The decision to add the erhu and pipa to GarageBand surely received scrutiny and approval from the highest levels in the company, which had to approve the engineering expenditures and handle the release and diplomacy strategy. In this case, localization served an important end in ongoing negotiations and political moves that span continents. For companies that want a piece of the burgeoning Chinese market, and the yuan that come with it, Apple shows the importance of localization and deep cultural adaptation.

However, it is music fans who reap the greatest benefits. Chinese users of GarageBand will feel more at home, and the app opens up new creative potential for musicians elsewhere in the world who might never otherwise encounter Chinese instruments. All of these groups are benefitting from a geopolitical situation that has shifted traditional patterns of localization and cultural power. As other economies grow and corporations look to the “long tail” of languages for growth potential, we should expect to see more and more awareness of the power of cultural diplomacy and localization. Perhaps in a few years we may see a version of GarageBand with Senegalese drums and harps, Indonesian gamelan ensembles, Russian balalaikas, Mexican vihuelas, Hungarian bagpipes and Peruvian pan flutes.

These developments will provide big opportunities for language service providers that can see themselves as more than wordsmiths. Those with local knowledge and networks of experts who can assist in cultural localization will find themselves with high-value capabilities that will allow them to pitch to the highest corporate levels. While translating a UI into Chinese is a valuable task, the ability to advise corporate buyers on how to understand and address the hopes and desires of customers around the world is one that opens up new vistas for localization.