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Localization beyond Localization: Apple Bets on Chinese Music
Posted by Arle Lommel on May 24, 2016  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization, Business Globalization, Mobile Localization
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On May 16 in California – May 17 in Beijing – Apple released what appeared to be a minor update of its music-creation software GarageBand to version 10.1.2 (MacOS)/2.1.1 (iOS). Usually, sub-point updates are maintenance updates to fix small bugs and do not merit our notice, but this one warranted a press release from Apple.

Why? This version adds support for virtual Chinese instruments: the erhu, which plays a role similar to the violin in orchestras; the pipa, a lute that occupies a musical place somewhat similar to the guitar; and Chinese percussion, including gongs and drums. Creating support for these instruments involved more than just adding a few sound files and graphics; it required engineering new ways of interacting with the virtual instruments to mimic local playing styles and implementing additional scales used in Asian music. In addition, Apple added Chinese-language support to the user interface and a set of 300 loops to support these instruments. This is what localization looks like when it finds a home in the core of an enterprise – it takes transcreation and then goes a step beyond.

Virtual world instruments are nothing new: 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. In this case, however, Apple users either get the instruments for free on newer Macs and iOS devices or for a nominal fee of US$4.99 when they purchase GarageBand on older devices. 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 must turn these instruments on in the app’s settings.

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 on iTunes in Hong Kong.

All of these moves may be part of a three-dimensional chess game: For the past two years, the Chinese Public Security Ministry has reportedly been demanding access to Apple’s source code for security features built into its products – a request that Apple claims to have refused. 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 $US1 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 user interface onto an otherwise unlocalized product and call it good. Localization that goes beyond translation to re-envision products and how they relate to local markets certainly 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 U.S.-centric approach to localization. In this case the U.S. is also a beneficiary of localization. Large multinational enterprises such as Apple and IBM are increasingly becoming polycentric,” with R&D 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 U.S. becomes just one market among many, rather than the home market. In this context, market entry decisions take on even greater importance.

  • 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, at the end of the day, 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.


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