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Bangla Software

Bangla Software The use of computers in Bangladesh began in the early 1980s. The attempt to use Bangla on computers began a few years later.

Two components are required to write Bangla on computers. One is a Bangla font and the other is a keyboard driver. These two components are quite different from each other, but the use of one is completely dependent on the other. These two components are considered under the rubric of Bangla software.

Even after two decades have passed since the advent of Bangla computing, there is scant evidence of any worthwhile official bid to substantively enhance the use of Bangla software. Consequently those who use Bangla on computers or those who would like to use Bangla, have been overwhelmed by a bewildering array of countless Bangla software programmes which are the product of myriad unplanned ventures by different developers at different times.

All attempts to develop Bangla software have been made essentially by individuals or private institutions. Many of these are expatriate Bangladeshis. The development of a Bangla font was the unavoidable first step of developing a Bangla software. There is some disagreement over who made the first attempt to develop a Bangla font in Bangladesh. The table below provides a list of Bangla software programmes developed to date. Only the software programmes developed by Bangladeshis or in active interaction with Bangladesh, have been included in the table.

According to news reports, the first research (1982-1986) on Bangla use on computers was conducted under the supervision of Dr. Syed Mahbubur Rahman of the Electrical Engineering Department of BUET. But no information is available on any practical application of this work. Most computers in use at that time were DOS based (MS-DOS) and Macintosh. Due to the practical advantages of Macintosh's graphical interface and the needs of the publishing industry, in the beginning, the use of Macintosh software was relatively more prevalent. The first Bangla software developed for Mac was called 'Shahidlipi' marketed in 1984. This package of a font and a keyboard driver was developed by Saif ud Doha Shahid. In December 1988, Ananda Computers of Dhaka launched 'Bijoy', a Bangla font and keyboard package for Macintosh. The enterprise was spearheaded by Mostafa Jabbar and Golam Farukh Ahmed. Later, a Windows version for it was developed.

Since Bangla computing was dependent on the publishing industry, no one took the initiative to develop a Bangla software for the DOS platform till 1988. In November 1988, M Shamsul Huq Choudhury of Automation Engineers marketed 'Abaho', a DOS-based package of font and keyboard. Then came 'Onirban'. Later, its Windows version got a fair amount of popularity. Safe Works' Anko and Sohel's 'Barna', made with graphical interface in DOS mode, attracted attention. In 1993, they developed a Windows interface for this and added a Bangla spell-checker for the first time. With the increased popularity of Windows PC and increased use of computers a slew of Bangla software programmes entered the market in the 1990s. In 1993, 'Jatiyo' was developed with government approval. But its use was very limited and it gradually disappeared. During this time, Proshika launched 'Proshika Shabda', an aggregation of a number fonts and keyboard drivers. Later on, a Bangla spell-checker was added to the Proshika Shabda package. In 1994, a number of Bangla software programmes were launched, but none are known to be particularly noteworthy.

Expatriate Bangladeshi computer scientists began to work on using Bangla for computers from the beginning of the 1980s. In 1984, Dr. Abdul Mottaleb of AIT in Thailand developed a Bangla font for DOS. Few details are available about this effort. In 1985, Dr. Muhammad Jafar Iqbal developed a Bangla font for Macintosh in the United States. Besides the standard-sized letters, he developed smaller-sized Bangla letters, similar to the Roman upper and lower case alphabet, for use to form juktakkhor or conjoint consonants. As the 8-bit coding system of the computer does not accommodate all Bangla letters/symbols, he tried to bring about a change in the rules of writing Bangla. In this new system, many traditional juktakkhor or conjoint consonants appeared in new forms. He did not continue further with his efforts to change the traditional writing system of Bangla.

A new chapter began in Bangla software when 'Orcosoft Borno' was launched from the United States in June of 1998. Orcosoft Borno, which was based on the keyboard layout and algorithms designed by Dr. Abdus Shakil, was developed by Tahmid Choudhury. This was a limited-functionality word processor. The basis of the keyboard layout was phonetic, and it was based on a simple, logical set of rules. Orcosoft Borno was later marketed through 'ProtivaSoft' under the name of 'Lekhok' with some added features. After Orcosoft, several Bangla software programmes were developed with a phonetic keyboard layout. These include 'Adarsha Bangla', 'Natural Bangla', 'BornoSoft Bangla2000' and 'Bangla Word'. However, no other software followed a consistent logical system, except perhaps Bangla2000. The Bangla2000, a limited-function Bangla word processor, was launched by Bornosoft and written by US resident student Amirul Islam Manik.

Although there is no complete Bangla software for Linux, several Bangladeshis are working on this on individual initiative. Leading among these is Tanim Ahmed, a Canadian citizen now working in the US. In addition to working on providing system-level support for Linux in Bangla, he is also working on unicode-based open type fonts for Bangla. No known effort in Bangla software separately for Unix platform has been reported. In addition to Bangladeshis, several foreigners are working on developing Bangla software. Robin Upton of Altruists in England is one of them. He has developed 'Ekhushey', an add-on Bangla software, which works exclusively on Microsoft Word. Indian Bangalis from India's West Bengal and abroad have also developed an almost equal number of Bangla software programmes.

The incredible profusion of Bangla software make two things clear: (a) it is not easy to write Bangla on computers, and (b) many developers have tried to make the use of Bangla easy in this medium. Every developer claims their own product to be easier than the others. But it is fair to say that no one has succeeded in proving this. The main problem with the hitherto launched Bangla programmes is that these programmes require a user to practice and master a new keyboard. It is inevitable that other than professional Bangla typists, no one will expend time to master a new keyboard for Bangla in addition to the Roman keyboard. Consequently, although there are over two-dozen Bangla software programmes available in the market, less than five percent of computer users in Bangladesh can write Bangla on the computer. It is so expensive and time-consuming to master the Bangla keyboard that at one point, some software were developed to allow typing Bangla on the computer by clicking a mouse on the Bangla alphabet on the monitor. These efforts underscore the widespread inability to write Bangla by using a keyboard. This also suggests that typing Bangla on a computer is exclusively the job of a professional Bangla typist.

The large number of Bangla characters is often blamed for being the main obstacle to the development of an easy Bangla software. But countries like China and Japan have taken steps to type Chinese and Japanese on the computer comfortably, using the knowledge of the 26 keys on the Roman keyboard, notwithstanding the fact that each language has over 1,000 characters. Almost all languages have developed a standardized transliteration scheme for representing words in their language in Roman script. Such a scheme, which can be mastered in an hour, enables even a foreigner without the ability to read the language to type it on the computer using only the pronunciation. However, this had not been the case in Bangladesh with Bangla software.

US resident Dr. Abdus Shakil, a physician-scientist by profession and the founder of BornoSoft, has devised such a logical and comprehensive system after years of research in Bangla. The Bangla2000 software launched by BornoSoft is based on that system. Anyone, even a foreigner, can master the system in an hour and can fluently write Bangla on computers using 26 lower-case keys of the Roman keyboard.

Since the beginning of the use of computers in Bangladesh, one Bangla software after another has been launched. Although none has been able to satisfy the users, Bijoy ranks on the top of the list of number of users. Most professional Bangla typists use Bijoy. Next in popularity is probably the Munir keyboard (based on the Munir Optima typewriter) that is included in a number of packages. On the other hand, BornoSoft Bangla2000 is the Bangla software of choice for Bangla users in Europe and North America. Among the non-professional Bangla typists in Bangladesh, BornoSoft's Bangla2000 is gradually gaining popularity. [Abdus Shakil]