Apple’s work towards internationalising their products has been incredibly inconsistent. There are some glowing examples (primarily in iOS and on regional Apple websites), but there are some places where their efforts could be improved, particularly on the desktop and on iCloud.
(most recent update: 8 August 2018—many of the complaints in previous versions of this article have been rectified, though there is still room for improvement.)
iOS: Mostly good iOS comes in a wide variety of languages and dialects – in fact, its language selection is more comprehensive than that of OS X. The user interface and Apple-made apps are designed to reflect different languages, cultures and regions and it’s clear there’s some effort at making sure their apps are culturally sensitive. Even English-language applications change based on what iOS language and region format you’ve chosen. On Pages for iOS, if your OS is set to UK English and Region Format UK, you can create envelopes whose addresses list cities, counties and postcodes instead of cities, states and ZIP codes and CVs instead of résumés.
Regional websites The same attention paid to iOS itself applies to the iOS 8 marketing websites on regional versions of Apple.com – at least for selected languages. In the iOS screenshots, many regional pages show app screenshots in the same language the copy is in, so the German screenshots show German text, featuring people with typically German names. The same applies to France, Thailand, the UK, Australia, Italy and Brazil. There are even subtle differences between language variants for some countries – Mexico and Spain have different copy and screenshots. The UK and Australia have slightly different names and time formats (UK with 24-hour time and Australia with 12-hour time). The Japanese, Korean and Chinese pages go even further, changing both the people in the photos and the text. (And they don’t use the same East Asian people for China, Japan and Korea either.) Every page is written in the appropriate language or dialect though – there’s no English on the Spanish or Thai page. Even the Canadian page uses Canadian spelling.
This is all really impressive work and Apple deserves credit for paying so much attention to their international iOS user base.
Apple starts losing their touch after a while, though. The English-language Indian page uses the same time format as the Australian screenshots, but the same text and people as the British one. The Swedish, Dutch, Romanian, Portuguese, Polish and Russian pages use the same images as the North American pages. New Zealand uses a mixture of the British and American screenshots – and ‘Favourites’ is written incorrectly (for New Zealand, anyway) in the penultimate screenshot (though it’s written with a ‘U’ everywhere else), but Control Centre is written properly for NZ. A similar issue appears with Taiwan, which uses a combination of the Chinese and North American screenshots. Canada’s is identical to the US page, except for the spelling in the copy (‘favourite’ has a U).
I can give Canada a pass, since there isn’t a specific Canadian English user interface in iOS. But that doesn’t apply to the non-English-speaking countries like Taiwan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and the Netherlands. All those languages are available in iOS. For India, they could have included photos of Indian people at the very least. Some of these mistakes were easily avoidable, though – no American spellings or Month/Day/Year date formats should have appeared on the New Zealand screenshots, and English of any variety should not be on the Taiwanese page at all.
Verdict for iOS: There has been some painstaking work put into these internationalisations and I’ve got to give them credit. But there are a few blunders here and there that keep it from being perfect – at this point, though, they’re second only to Google. But their efforts are far and away ahead of Microsoft – and Apple’s own OS X division.
OS X: You tried? Let’s compare this with OS X, which is more like Microsoft in the 90s, making the minimum effort.
Simplified Chinese is the only language for which OS X sample screenshots have been localised. That’s right, the screenshots for other languages and scripts like French, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, German, Traditional Chinese and Korean are still in English. Even if they use non-Roman letters like Thai and Russian. The copy is written in the right language (or dialect, in the case of English-to-English ‘translations’), but that’s what everybody expects. Nobody expects to go to a website designated for the Italian market to find English copy written there. Even with the inconsistencies on the iOS pages, they’re much better than OS X. I do give Apple credit for careful localisation of each page though – you won’t find American spellings and vocabulary littered across the UK or Australian pages (unlike Microsoft) or strings of untranslated English text on the French page.
(As of MacOS High Sierra, Hindi is available as a UI option.)
The situation isn’t much better in the OS itself for some languages. OS X is not available in Hindi. Yes, Hindi. One of the largest world languages out there. Hindi is available under Windows and iOS as of version 8. Windows has a wider variety of world languages available, including African languages (Swahili, Xhosa, Zulu and many more) which are completely unrepresented in OS X, with the exception of Arabic.
For a point of comparison: Windows’ language list (as of Windows 8.1) is here.
(Please note that the following section on language variants will soon be outdated; MacOS is finally starting to rectify this problem and will be including British English, Canadian French and Australian English in the next major release. —FG, 8 August 2018.)
The only English dialect available for the UI is American. No British, no Australian, no Canadian, no Indian. They can’t even be bothered to change the spelling (how hard is it to add a ‘U’ to the Favourites sidebar? it took me a few minutes), much less modify the vocabulary – no ‘Bin’ for Trash for a hypothetical English (UK) version, for example. The same applies to apps (with the sole exception of iTunes, which is localised for UK English) – sample documents in Pages for iOS change based on the English dialect you’ve chosen as your default. Addresses can be composed of city, county and postcode for the UK, and cities, states and zip codes for the US. You’ll only see cities, states and ZIP codes on Pages for OS X. That cultural sensitivity doesn’t exist on OS X – apparently the US is the sum total of the English-speaking world.
This is a backward and parochial stance. Windows, once notable for steadfastly ignoring English dialects other than American, has had an installable British English version for the past two years. English is spoken outside the United States, where it didn’t even originate. How can you be so thoughtful on your websites and in iOS, but not at all in OS X? They do the bare minimum: spellcheckers and date format options, but not the actual user interface. This is like Microsoft in the 90s and early 2000s.
French suffers from the same problem as English, though unlike English only the European variant is available. Canadian French is available on iOS, but it’s not on OS X. In Apple’s defence, though, they’ve introduced Mexican Spanish to Yosemite (before, the only Spanish available was Peninsular Spanish – this is recognisable by the use of ordenador to refer to a computer, rather than the Latin American computadora). This is the first time a subset of a Latin-script language (there are multiple Traditional Chinese versions available) has been added to the OS where most of the differences concern vocabulary and sentence structure, rather than larger differences like Brazilian and European Portuguese.
It’s becoming more common to offer multiple subsets of languages, especially in mobile operating systems. The idea that there is One Dialect To Rule Them All (and in the darkness bind them!) is quickly becoming passé. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t the leader here, despite their forward-looking reputation – they’re well behind Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Etsy and other US-based tech companies. As I said before, they’re the 1990s Microsoft in this regard.
Verdict for OS X: What are you doing, Apple? OS X needs to gain parity with iOS. If you’re going to try to bring the platforms closer together, you should add more languages and dialects, including Hindi, Canadian French/Québécois, UK English, Australian English and Indian English, since these languages and dialects are already available for iOS.
Update, 16 May 2015: Apple’s inconsistency in internationalisation persists. According to Multilingual Mac, the Apple Watch will be coming in much fewer languages than iOS. This may present a problem for people whose iPhones sync with the Apple Watch, but don’t have the iPhone set to a language available on the Apple Watch. Languages like Portuguese, Russian and Hindi are notably absent from this release – it seems to be mostly a handful of Western European languages, Chinese and Japanese.
Update, 25 May 2015: Brazilian Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and Russian have been added to the Apple Watch, according to Multilingual Mac. Most of these are European languages (or a South American dialect of a European language), but it’s good to see Thai added.
Update, 23 October 2015: iWork for iCloud, despite having been out for two years, still does not support British English spellcheckers. If you don’t write US English, you’re a second-class citizen. If you’re part of the rest of the English-speaking world, stick with Google Docs. European Portuguese speakers are similarly left out for now.
Update, 8 August 2018: Apple is becoming more consistent. In the upcoming MacOS Mojave, the operating system will include British English, Canadian French, Australian English and a second Traditional Chinese localisation geared towards users in Hong Kong. While this is less extensive than the English options available on iOS, it’s a major improvement.