Starting from the late-1970s and on into the early-1980s, when personal computers became available on a significant scale, a number of Tamil professionals around the world were enthused to undertake individual efforts to incorporate Tamil language in computers and in the then-fledgling Internet. By the late-1980s, the degree of incompatibility among these efforts had limited the value of their contributions to local contexts.
The first initiative to identify the dimensions of disorder in Tamil computing was undertaken in 1997 at a conference in Singapore (since then called the First Tamil Internet Conference). The issues raised there were further articulated at the Second Tamil Internet Conference held in Chennai in February 1999. At this conference it was proposed that the placement of glyphs within a Tamil font would follow a recommended scheme. Both bilingual and monolingual schemes were standardised. The conference also arrived at a standard for data entry in Tamil. Despite agreements with respect to the Tamilnet-99 keyboard and encoding for TAB and TAM Tamil characters, there was a sense of non-fulfillment with respect to many other crucial tasks. As a fallout of the 1999 Chennai conference, Tamil Nadu got a Tamil Virtual University and the Tamil Software Development Fund. And, more substantially, attention came to be paid to the value of promoting Tamil computing on multiple fronts.
Recognising the need for an institutional foundation at the international level to pay continued attention to emerging developments in Tamil computing and Internet applications, the International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil (INFITT) was formed and located in Singapore with generous support from the Singapore government.
Global cooperation facilitated by momentous developments in Internet and computing technologies has since then led to many remarkable achievements. Sending and receiving e-mail with text in Tamil, or handling chat, have been greatly simplified. Text-to-speech editors have been developed for the benefit of the visually handicapped. The number of Tamil websites has become large, and it is growing. These include those of Tamil newspapers and magazines and e-journals. Then there are greeting cards, matrimonial sites, on-line learning resources, those sites devoted to cookery, beauty tips, health issues, songs, movies, tourism information, games, puzzles and so on, in Tamil. Unicode has become a world standard and many computer applications have provided Unicode support so that multilingual text can be handled.
At the same time, there are many lingering problems. Information Technology, in respect of the use of Tamil on computers, should necessarily aim to reach all the people so as to give them the benefits of this new technological power. People should be able to use computers to deal with information given in Tamil without knowledge of English on the part of the user. Some of the current research and development efforts address such issues.
The Tamil community is suddenly waking up to all the missed opportunities after realising how far Tamil language is falling behind many other languages. This is evident from the degree of enthusiasm and cooperation seen in putting together the Tamil Internet Conference (TIC-2010) in Coimbatore to be held in conjunction with the World Classical Tamil Conference, thanks to unstinted support from the Government of Tamil Nadu. A large number of papers submitted to TIC-2010, especially from Tamil Nadu, address almost all of the advanced concepts. Nearly 400 international experts will discuss some 150 research papers dealing with a range of topics involving contemporary developments in Tamil computing.
The papers on Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing include developments in Text to Speech, Syntactic Parsing, Character Recognition, Spell Check and so on. Several papers discuss approaches to Bilingual Data Bases, Electronic Tamil Libraries, Tamil in Mobile Devices, Tamil Search Engines, and Processing Large Data Bases in Tamil. Some explain methods of computer-assisted Tamil Teaching, Tamil Blogging and Tamil Content Development in Wikipedia. Many ideas have been advanced to carry the work forward through the next several years through special efforts in areas such as computational linguistics, and the collection of a large bank of Bi-lingual Corpora of some two million sentences.
One of the basic objectives of TIC-2010 is to stimulate the interest of the younger generation in Tamil computing. The enthusiastic response from school and college students to the Tamil computing competition and Wikipedia has been encouraging. This needs to be sustained and expanded. The special participatory exposition of Tamil computing and Internet developments, including e-governance, Tamil periodicals, Tamil software, Tamil-related efforts of several multinational companies and so on are expected to attract the interest of lakhs of visitors. The enthusiasm and the level of expectations are evident. The spirit of cooperation needs to be sustained.
(The writer is the chairman of the local organising committee of TIC-2010.)