Pondicherry, India -- You could call it the French Connection. Pondicherry, a French colony for 138 years until 1954, is using its residual links to France to build software and websites for companies in Paris and as a means of establishing itself as an information technology powerhouse.
Although there are an estimated 14,000 French citizens in this small union territory, which has streets bearing quaint French names, scenic boulevards, and promenades, the residents speak an astounding variety of 55 languages.
That could be helpful as Pondicherry, roughly 80 miles down the coast from Madras on the Bay of Bengal, tries to grow beyond the Indian market and shake off its dependence on English-speaking nations.
Pondicherry also has an innovative and active expatriate community working out of the Aurovillecentre, in the territory's outskirts. Auroville has attracted foreign residents with computer skills as well as associated companies working in Web design and software development. The Adan Pradan Trust is one. Originally set up as an exporting unit for products like Indian incense sticks, the focus has shifted to outsourcing.
"We are working on a data conversion project for a French municipality," said Pradan's Manoj Bhattacharrya. "Scanned images from birth, marriage, and death registers are sent here and we put them into a database and send them back via CDs."
Pradan is currently building a website for Pondicherry University. Terry Leger, CEO of Azimuth, is another software and IT expert of French origin who works in Pondicherry.
"We are already doing a little work from France," he said. "We hope to get more work from Europe -- and especially from France."
Leger said his firm does a lot of transcription and localization of medical software from the United States, a country that has a history of sub-contracting out such work to places like Mexico and Barbados.
"Software development itself has no specific language (requirements). Maybe it would need just a few screens in French," Leger said.
Still, Leger said that French-speaking entrepreneurs would probably be better positioned to do business with those who already know their language.
"Some knowledge in the language certainly would help, especially if those doing data entry and form-processing work know the names of French cities and French names," he said. "It's important to know where to put the accents."
Leger points out that an entry into the French software market could also mean a gateway to parts of Switzerland and Belgium.
"In all, that's quite a big market, with close to a 100 million people," said Leger. But Leger, who has a unit functioning from the Pondicherry Engineering College, cautions that the French may take time to get used to the idea of outsourcing.
Bhattacharrya agreed, noting that the French can be "very, very conservative" in outsourcing work.
"They are new to the field, and don't know the full value of outsourcing. In addition, the Internet came rather late to France," he said.
Although Pondicherry has just 200 IT professionals graduating each year, another 400 students studying in the French lycee are poised to take advantage of the opportunities open to French speakers with computer knowledge, he said.
In the past, Brazilian software companies have come to the former Portuguese colony of Goa, on India's west coast, looking for help in translating some of their impressive software titles into English. All the software products for the Brazil's huge domestic market are in Portuguese. But Bhattacharrya said that just translating a software product into one language might not be that profitable.
"But once it is available in a language like English, it could be re-done for many other languages," he said. "That's where the possibility for earnings are."
by Frederick Noronha, 3:00 a.m. May. 29, 2000 PDT