All Things Localization / CSOFT Annual Summit

Michael Anobile on the History and Development of the Localization Industry

Michael Anobile

Michael Anobile is a founding member and former Director of LISA (Localization Industry Standards Association) with over 35 years of experience in international marketing communications. After relocating his family to Switzerland in 1980 to become European Training Manager for Exxon Office Systems, he subsequently held a number of European and Swiss senior management and marketing positions in the field of language-technology and global business development.

A few weeks ago, CSOFT held its 9th Annual World Summit, inviting guest speakers, industry experts and localization professionals from all over the world to engage in a series of presentations and discussions with the aim of mutual learning and sharing of industry knowledge. We were fortunate enough to have Michael Anobile present on “The History, Evolution, and Future of the Localization Business.” Michael graciously agreed to answer questions on some of the more poignant matters from his presentation, so check out the interview between Ross (CSOFT Marketing Writer) and Michael below, and prepare to be educated! 

So, Michael, to begin, could you please tell me how you got started in the localization industry?

Michael: I think the real beginning was when I was with Exxon Office Systems International in Europe. Translation played a crucial role in my job. I outsourced much of the in-market training to what I would call ‘language professionals,’ or ‘really good consultants,’ who of course were native speakers of French or German, etc. But it underscored the importance of culture, of expertise and being able to express things in a way that can be readily understood when trying to effectively relay a message that is created in another country. There were a lot of challenges from a technical perspective and from a skills perspective. Language was crucial.

Looking at my background as the International Marketing Manager for Automated Language Processing Systems, which was then known as ALPS and later became known as ALPNET, I think that’s when the penny dropped in terms of technology—language processing technology, that is—and how this technology could be deployed in an organization not only to speed up document translation, but also to speed up the entire software localization process. That was, at least, my beginning.

I did mention [during my presentation] that I had formed a company called Lexpertise where we actually bought a piece of code from ALPS and started to sell technology to some of the larger software companies at that time. That’s again where you started to see how companies were looking for ‘value added feature sets’ to add to their off-the-shelf word processors. In line with that, I also began to see how important language was as a function and how in demand it was starting to be. This was in the latter part of the 80s.

By the time the 90s started to roll around, I had begun consulting and then I saw how companies were really deploying it; how they were using technology, using translation production, combining everything to not only produce more quickly, but also to impact their revenue streams from a product localization perspective.

Who were some of the big players in localization back then?

Michael: Microsoft was big back then. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lotus, Oracle, Xerox—I feel in many respects that Xerox was ahead of the crowd back then, because they were not only ‘talking the talk,’ they were ‘walking the walk.’ They had used technology from ALPS and also technology from Systran and were integrating it into their production stream. So they were producing good quality documentation in multiple languages, and paying attention not only to how to use the technology, but how to improve it, and realize it as a process. I think that was pretty significant.

Apple, of course, was considered one of the players, but I don’t think they were deploying technology quite as smartly. I think that what they were doing was internationalizing before anybody else. So for the early Apple developers, it was great for them to use Apple as a platform to support multiple languages because they understood the importance of designing the product in such a way that it could facilitate localization. This was in the real early 90s.

What would you say was the major turning point or most significant development in the localization industry? In your opinion, when did things really start to ‘take off?’

Michael: Well, back in the 70s and 80s, it was more true to just say ‘translation industry,’ and back then this industry was seen as a ‘cottage business.’ By the 90s, the international software companies and the multinationals, from a very pragmatic and conceptual perspective, saw this ‘cottage’ as a high tech resource group, and that’s when things started to move.

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Microsoft started going international in the late 70s, early 80s, and by 1990, Microsoft’s total revenues had exceeded a billion dollars. They were publishing in something like 13 languages: Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, among others. And their international revenues contributed up to 55% of their annual sales. At that time, you had LISA facilitating these companies and creating an atmosphere of open exchange of what we’ll call nonproprietary data, and everybody was paying attention. People began to see the writing on the wall. They saw the resource group that was there. Microsoft particularly—and to be fair, the others to some extent as well—began to think strategically. They saw how localization could be strategically used to increase revenues, and also as a means to improve their production costs for releasing localized products. I think that was a major turning point.

That was early 90s, but by then the demand had started to pick up. Communications technology began really pushing into international markets. There was political change underway in many of these new markets. Although the majority of localization was initially US-based, it quickly shifted to Europe. By the mid 90s there was an explosive demand for manufacturing, and localization played a key part in generating huge demand for technical documentation and content specific to their products. This created a very technical, complex situation. Companies involved in publishing realized they needed more than just conventional translation. They needed localization that involved source codes, user interfaces, strings and double byte character support, as well as right, left and bi-directional text attention. And as a result of this demand, people in the localization industry had to know what they were doing. This was great, I think, because it did so much for the supply side of the business. And I think that relationship formed naturally because both parties understood how vital each was to the other’s success, and that’s when the ‘tire really hit the road,’ so to speak.

Where do you see the localization industry heading? What can we expect to see in the future with regard to localization?

Michael: It’s a huge market. It’s going to continue to stay very big. I believe it will also continue to evolve in order to meet shifting requirements, new markets, new technologies, new local applications, etc. And in my opinion, it means that a wider application of localization services certainly will be deployed in areas like local training, customer support, local application, local feature sets, integrating with legacy systems, and, of course, government compliance will always be there.

I would term this ‘expanded localization services,’ which, I think, will concentrate primarily on the developing Asian markets. And I firmly believe that China will play a central role in terms of logistics, technologies and skill sets. Certainly when you look at the Chinese market and how it relates to legacy knowledge and local support for production and distribution, the numbers are there. When you look at China’s manufacturing dominance on a global perspective, if they’re as successful as they’d like to be in terms of excelling in R&D, then the old adage of localization following manufacturing and R&D just points to China.

In brief, localization is moving more upstream. We see it very tied into company success because it hits the client’s needs in any given market. Some only get one or two markets, or maybe 10 markets; some hit it out of the park wherever they go. Look at how sophisticated software design is today and the tools they are using. What’s happening is translation is much easier than it has ever been. That’s great, but you still have 70% of the process needing management. And that’s where I believe this ‘expanded localization service’ will come into play in a very powerful way.

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Everything plays into that. The new business models that we talked about during the Summit—cloud-based solutions, cloud-based technologies—it’s arguable whether or not anything has happened in language processing over the past 50, 60 years. Of course, there have been improvements, but essentially, I would argue, the technology is there. It’s just a matter of how you put it together. And that’s the real genius. It’s the process, the commitment to a process, and an understanding of how to make that process work given client requirements and constraints. That is the brilliance behind the localization business.

Moving forward, where do you think CSOFT, or LSPs in general can improve to meet tomorrow’s challenges?

Michael: I think there are two main areas to pay attention to. One would be CSOFT really changing the pricing model, in a sense. That’s a tough one. But really changing it, and having customers understand that this is not a per word model. I believe that’s really important, because you’re moving further upstream into a much more sophisticated consultation role. The expertise is shifting. Localization companies are not ‘branding companies.’ They’re not at the high end of marketing communications, but they’re moving that way. That’s why I say it’s important—that whole shift in perception—because that is going to be significant from a client-service provider relationship perspective.

And then number two is education. Everybody dances around educating the client, educating the market. I think that education is something every localization company should be doing. That will move the industry to become much more visible, much better understood, not having to play with the question of “what is localization?” Because for the most part, people don’t get it. What they do get is ‘communications.’ They understand that the world is shrinking.

Education is crucial. If the localization industry, and ergo, it’s key players, were seen to not only have the technical savvy, but the presence, the confidence and the ability to educate, I think they’d close that gap between the customer and they’d really upgrade that perception of who they are and the kinds of values they can and do in fact contribute to many companies, particularly in this age.

What are your overall thoughts on the Summit?

Michael: I think CSOFT succeeded in not just bringing attention to localization, but, in my opinion, putting the attention on localization where it should be: marketing communications expertise. This is not about price per word business. This is not about translation and contracting accordingly. For me, sitting in an audience with some of the leading companies in the world today from a publishing perspective, software perspective and manufacturing perspective, it was so well done, because I believe that companies like Halliburton, for example, understood that the challenges they confront can be addressed by a high level localization skill, making them more readily understood.

And with BAIC, the recognition on the buying side of the industry—I certainly had the impression that they recognize this is not about a cost per word issue. This is a very sophisticated skill. It’s a strategic requirement that every business has. And I think that CSOFT succeeded very well in tabling that, exploring that, actually, exploiting that in the open forum. You had a wonderful set of professionals that were asking the right questions, delving deep into ‘what must I understand to make my business more successful?’ and recognizing at the same time that localization can certainly assist.

Well, that’s good to hear.

Michael: I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion. And certainly the wrap up panel – that was brilliant, by the way – with Bill Powell at the helm, and just that cross section of companies, and Will Knight. I think everybody there recognized what has to be done. Of course, we were focusing on China for the most part, and CSOFT, a China-based company that has a truly global feel to it. It’s clear that CSOFT is really trying to upgrade the level of professionalism in the localization business.

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CSOFT International is a translation, localization, and globalization services provider that helps international businesses reach out to customers around the world.