Flurry, a maker of mobile-app analytics tools, reports that the United States is rapidly losing its edge in software as it goes mobile. In 2008, American companies held 65% of the worldwide software market. Now, 64% of apps are made outside the U.S. Chinese users, in particular, spend most of their time using apps made in China.
That's why app makers should go international early. If not, they may lose their best shot at gaining users abroad.
For Quip, though, the answer was also that it could. CEO Bret Taylor tells me his team was able to internationalize the app far faster and less expensively than previous generations of apps, thanks to good planning early on and the distribution that Apple and Google offer mobile developers.
Typically, internationalization is an afterthought, something to do after a developer conquers a home market. And it often requires rebuilding the app's underpinnings. That's what slows development down and adds cost, Taylor says.
Taylor previously worked at Facebook, and before that, he and his cofounder, Kevin Gibbs, both worked at Google. Those experiences helped Quip's team think about how to build in internationalization and localization "hooks"—bits of software meant to enable translation to multiple languages with ease—from the very start.
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Google, in particular, has added many tools to its Android software-development kits that enable internationalization. But Taylor said those weren't particularly useful, because Quip was aiming to internationalize for three platforms at once—Apple's iOS, Android, and the mobile Web.
The big challenge in internationalization is handling strings, or blocks of text characters.
"A lot of the native platforms have their own ways of doing strings, so we built an internal tool that let us share the same translation framework between Android and iOS," says Taylor. "That was an interesting thing we wish there were better tools for." He says he might consider releasing it as open-source software when Quip's small team has more time.
Smart handling of strings was smart business. On each platform, an app might have a different way to represent an interface element, like a notification that another user has opened a document.
"If you do [translation] naively, you'll pay a translator three times to translate the same phrase," Taylor explained.