The progress of Kannada software has been buffeted between altruistic and business interests.
IS THE question of the state of Indian language software always a defensive one, given the extraordinary power, reach, and attraction of English? A look at the Kannada software and its development down the years confirms such a sentiment. Is the Kannada software industry under pressure, and what are the immediate factors at work within the industry?
Early Kannada software, a script-enabling one, was largely geared towards desktop publishing (DTP). Shabdaratna, Venus, Prakashak, and Sediyapu were some of the software that brought publication activity to computers from manual typesetting. This was the mid-'80s when the PCs were just coming in.
While these packages were in use, two other major software Srilipi and Akruti made their entry. They were more advanced and Windows compatible. Then came Surabhi, and Winkey, the latter being an advanced version of the earlier Shabdaratna.
By the mid-'90s, Kannada software moved away from DOS-based systems to Windows, and firms producing Windows-based programmes made a kill. The Government, quite clearly, was the biggest customer. However, all was not well with the working of the software, especially in government departments, where a document in one software would not open in another. For instance, data in Akruti would not open in Srilipi. The problem was non-portability of data between software: each software worked well only as an isolate.
A few independent researchers then took it upon themselves to alert the Government to the problem of non-standardisation of Kannada software as well as keyboards. Each software having its own keyboard was bound to present problems. The number of keys and characters, and the modification of the existing English keyboard to ensure compatibility with Kannada characters were important issues to be addressed.
Another set of problems had to do with applications/data processing. Some researchers wondered why Kannada was used only in DTP and not in data processing or database applications. Why wasn't there a single software that enabled data processing in Kannada? Srinath Sastry of the Ganaka Parishath points out: "If one were to take bus or train tickets, or examination forms, applications are in Kannada, but the data filled in is in English. The resulting output then is English. This was because of the absence of a software that would process the information in Kannada itself."
A question related to the problem of data processing was then raised. How would one ensure alphabetical ordering a very difficult proposition in Indian languages? For instance, the order of grammar in one Indian language may not match the order in another, or for that matter between English and other Indian languages.
To address these in some seriousness, the Government convened a conference, Kannada and Computers. Around that time, the Adivesha Co-operative Bank in Shimoga computerised all its transactions in Kannada using the Gistcard software developed by C-DAC. The bank was invited to make a presentation on the benefits of a complete Kannada software setting. Meanwhile, members of what came to be known as Ganaka Parishath, who had been observing these developments, brought pressure on the Government to move towards rationalisation. Dinesh Kumble, computer scientist and brother of the cricketer, had earlier, at a Computer Society of India conference, explained the benefits of Googly, the standardised software he had produced.
Impressed by the bank's presentation and the Parishath's call, the Government announced the need to create a technical atmosphere for standardisation of Kannada software and keyboard. If standardisation was achieved, the development of a Kannada database application would not be far behind. But steps towards standardisation were already being launched. K.P. Rao, a software developer, had come up with a brilliant layout. He used the existing English keyboard to devise characters for Kannada on just 26 keys. The swaras and vyanjanas were divided neatly on to the left and right of the keys so as to make it easy to learn and remember. The layout worked wonderfully, and some modifications later, it was announced that the K.P. Rao Keyboard Layout would be the standardised one. All software vendors were asked to stick to these standards by the Government to avoid confusion.
This done, the more important problem of non-portability of data remained. The Government asked software developers to follow the IISCI code on language, evolved by C-DAC, to enable portability. The code, however, was found unsuitable for transliteration purposes. It made navigation between different languages difficult as it could not address language-specific issues; for instance, the problem of vyakarana in Kannada. A technical committee was constituted in March 2000 to look into the problem, and the Ganaka Parishath came up with the Kannada Script Code for Language Processing, (KSCLP) "a milestone in the history of Kannada software", in 2001. It was this glyph code that enabled some movement between different software. Developers were immediately asked to adhere to the code.
Having experienced the advantages of the code, the Government decided in October 2000 to have a benchmark software, its own Kannada script enabling software with standards fixed by itself. Nudi was really a product of this, a package that provided a variety of fonts around a common code. All private software vendors were then asked to adhere to standards set by Nudi. While implementing standards in Nudi, the Government came across problems in database, primarily language-related sorting issues. But the new Kannada code, a modification of that developed by the C-DAC, helped address the problem by evolving a standard set of characters. The Government adopted this code along with Nudi in 2001, by which time it had largely accepted the benefits of standardisation.
The Government felt that Nudi, which was then producing about 15 fonts, should be converted into a full-fledged software, from a benchmark one. The Parishath complied, and by 2002, Nudi was accepted as the official software and was ready to test other software.
In the midst of these developments, the six to eight private software developers who enjoyed a good market for their products, particularly in the Government, reportedly pressured the Government to put the standardisation decision on hold as they could no longer bank on a guaranteed clientele.
Users would switch over to Nudi and the firms could then survive only so long. A free offer on the standardised software, Nudi, threatened them further. Why would the Government or even a private user want to pay Rs. 10, 000 to Rs. 30,000 when a standardised software was being offered for free? The Ganaka Parishath did precisely that.
A classic market move! If other developers were to survive, they had to standardise their software in line with norms set by Nudi, and if they did, risk losing a guaranteed number of users (as users would choose from different software) or offer their software free of cost, which means they actually make no money/revenue. This was a serious factor that "brought the industry almost to a halt".
And then came Baraha, a new standardised software, released free of cost from the US. Baraha carried properties similar to Nudi and portability of data was simply not a problem. Moreover, both Nudi and Baraha carried Software Development Kits out of which new customised software could be developed for database applications.
The temptation to choose from the two, therefore, would always be high. Baraha is now widely used by non-resident Kannadigas everywhere.
Why is it that a single private developer did not produce standardised software even after the rather ubiquitous Windows platform came about is a question that needs asking.
Whether this has to do with timing, chance, intelligence or a certain calculation that non-standardisation meant better clientele and revenues, or whether there was a software that did not work well, is not very clear.
And for the question why someone is offering a product free of cost, and why someone else is not, one can say safely that the former has been concerned about the development of Kannada language and culture, while the latter has largely been worried about running a business. The state of Kannada software lies somewhere between this linguistic and business intersection.
Send this article to Friends by