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February 9, 1999


Thinking in Tamil: TamilNet 99 has invited suggestions for standardising a Tamil keyboard. Vijay Shankar
at TamilNet 99, Madras

It is a giant step forward for Tamil usage in computers and on the Internet," says Vikram, a software engineer at IBM who was commenting on TamilNet 99, the International Conference and Seminar on the use of Tamil in information technology.

Email this story to a friend. "Stealing the march over many other states in India, Tamil Nadu has set rolling a major effort for enabling greater usage of the Tamil on the Internet," he pointed out.

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Tamil is one of the world's oldest known languages. The classical language has thrived through the millennia and is today spoken by about 80 million people spread over 65 countries. Tamil is one of the official languages of Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

The Tamil diaspora is estimated at 20 million and like any other, yearns to reach its roots. And this is presented with just such an opportunity, through the magic of the Internet, to learn more about and cement ties with their native land.

There are an estimated one million Tamil users on the Internet today besides a vast number that use Tamil on the computer regularly.

At the Tamil Nadu government's initiative, TamilNet 99 brought together over 100 leading Tamil Software experts from across the globe to work out solutions for important issues relating to Tamil usage on the computer.

The goal of the conference, in the words of Dr Anandhakrishnan, chairman, sub-committee of the Tamil Nadu state-level Task Force on Information Technology, "Is to standardise the character encoding in the Tamil script and to recommend an efficient mapping for the Tamil keyboard."

He claimed that there are about 3,000 Web sites in Tamil on the Internet but there is no uniform standard for the fonts, leading to much difficulty for the users.

"You would be surprised by the amount of usage of Tamil on the Internet," observed Dr Anandhakrishnan. "The great Tamil classics are already on the Net. So are the major newspapers and Tamil magazines. It often happens that you could read a Tamil newspaper with a particular font type but you have to change the font software for reading another newspaper or magazine. Huge benefits will accrue to the common citizens of Tamil Nadu if there is an uniform coding system for Tamil fonts and a standardised keyboard. With the expected proliferation of Internet in Tamil Nadu, this is very necessary."

Language and computer specialists deliberated at length on the various experiences obtained so far, to evolve a common standard for Tamil usage in computers and the Internet.

The delegates represented Canada, United States, Switzerland, France, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius and Sri Lanka besides India.

According to Dr K Srinivasan of Canada the 100 specialists across the world have been working on the issue of standardisation of Tamil usage over the past two years and have been exchanging views over the Net.

"These experts are mostly professionals settled abroad, with a zeal for the Tamil language. They have no vested interests in the whole affair and that is the reason why the Tamil Nadu government has chosen to involve them, through this conference for finalising the encoding system," he said.

Srinivasan himself used to be a scientist at the Power Research Institute, Canada, and took to software development in Tamil out of choice.

Commending the support and motivation received for the project from all quarters, Dr Srinivasan felt that the local government has indeed been very earnest about the whole exercise.

"The Tamil Nadu government has indeed played a stellar role in the evolution of the TSCII standard for Tamil script for computer usage," he said.

It is not only the Tamils who have contributed to enabling greater Tamil usage on the Internet, Dr Srinivasan reminded, pointing to the case of Professor George Hart who holds the Chair for Tamil at the University of Berkeley, California.

"Though he isn't here today, he has made valuable contributions to this project," Srinivasan said.

The Conference has come not a day too soon, felt Muthu Nedumaran, director, product sales, Oracle Corporation, Asia Pacific Division.

"Today, there are several hundred Tamil Web sites and email addresses on the Internet. Tamils abroad were earlier not so convinced that Tamil would be as easy as English for content but there is now an explosion of Tamil on the Internet.

"You can imagine the plight of the user when there are so many different fonts and he or she has to get separate software for reading each font!" he said.

The pressure for standardisation of font encoding has come not only from developers but also from users. "It is wrong," feels Nedumaran, "that one can lock people into one's product, by locking the standards, as users do not get the full benefit at the end of the day. An independent consortium is needed to converge and merge all the Tamil usage on the entire Internet. Email as a tool has grown very fast indeed and there is a lot of Tamil email traffic these days."

Nedumaran talked of the thrill people feel in being able to use their native tongue on the computer. "I can now write to my mother!" or "I can rediscover my language!" are some of the responses he cited to the question 'Why people take to Tamil in email when the English option is available?'

As an outcome of the two-day conference, a draft standard for encoding of Tamil font was presented. After considering different encoding standards, TamilNet 99 has recommended one that is adaptable for both the monolingual and the bilingual application.

To overcome encoding constraints on account of lower space availability (Tamil script requires 247 independent character spaces while only 128 locations are available on an 8-bit system), the character and glyph encoding scheme for word processing and publishing in Tamil will now follow the monolingual scheme and if required can operate on the bilingual scheme using ASCII characters.

The recommended standard is being put on the Web for enabling developers and users to try it out over different platforms and software.

Feedback from users, over the next 100 days, would be taken into consideration and the final encoding standards adopted in early June.

All the participating countries would approve the adopted encoding system. There on, all software would have to be made compatible.

Meanwhile efforts will continue to move the standards towards the Unicode System. The Tamil Nadu government is to become a member of the International Unicode Consortium and along with the other countries that recognise Tamil as an official language will work on the changeover to the Unicode system.

The TamilNet 99 conference also discussed the configuration of the Tamil keyboard and has proposed a solution that is considered practical and efficient.

The phonetic keyboard recommended by the conference will be the common standard for all future use. The Romanised keyboard would, however, continue to be available for those who do not know the Tamil script but prefer to work through English characters.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, in his valedictory address, complemented technocrats at TamilNet 99 for arriving at a consensus on specific issues put before them... the standardised coding system for Tamil fonts and the adoption of a common Tamil keyboard.

This will go a long way is establishing better interchange of information in Tamil, he felt. "It takes us closer to establishing a global Tamil village on the Internet," he declared.

WorldTel CEO Sam Pitroda, who was also present, announced a possible collaboration with the Tamil Nadu government for a $100 million venture for setting up a large network of 'Internet community centres' in Tamil Nadu.

"We believe this state will emerge as a focal point for educational activity and all kinds of learning software shall be developed here for catering to the rest of India and the world," he observed.

Avenues not seen before in terms of linguistics, culture and historical background on Tamil life are today available on the Internet. And people are beginning to assess the immense possibilities on the Internet," remarked Nedumaran while expressing total optimism about the growth of Tamil usage on the Net.

"Take for example the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel that people are interested in. It's all about how things happen. There is an outburst of curiosity and there is an opportunity to have an information enabled society in a truer sense through the use of the native tongue," he pointed out.

Technical obstacles will be overcome, feels Nedumaran, "The Unicode is of course the goal as there is a big need for multilingual interface but these technical obstacles (the non conformity with the Unicode system) are not really going to be a hassle. The demand from users for easy Tamil usage on the Internet will propel us towards a viable encoding system."

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