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The Story of Ekushey Project

After completing my Ph.D. in Statistics & Artificial Intelligence from Warwick University, UK, I went to Bangladesh for the first time in 1998. I had started to learn Bangla some months before and looked for a free Bangla typing system on the internet but couldn't find one. Moved by the huge inequality between materially rich and poor nations and feeling called to help in a direct way, I taught computing in an orphanage in rural Khulna. Peculiarly, the computer there had a few Bangla fonts installed, but no way of using them. My response was to write a simple set of macros for MS-Word, so the children could type in Bangla.

After a year or so I discovered other groups of Bangla fonts that were incompatible with the system I'd made so I reprogrammed it to add support for them. I worked on it as a hobby until the start of 2001. By that time I had experienced a few proprietary systems of Bangla typing, but didn't find any that seemed to me as easy to use as the one I had created. I started an organization, Altruists International with some friends who helped me to work on the system in most of my spare time for about a year, by which time I had built a website, an installer program, documentation and had trailed it with Bangla typists used to other systems.

Resolved to give it away free, I named it 'Ekushey' and emailed the system to the Bangladesh government and some other national bodies, outlining its advantages over existing methods and explaining that it was freely available to promote the use of Bangla. However, the only response came from a certain gentleman (owner of a company which produces a Bangla keyboard interface) informing me of his opinion that I had "tried to use the Fonts, Keyboard layout and other copyrighted products ... without having a permission[sic]". Unable to take seriously the claim about fonts, I modified the keyboard layout and created an editor - so users could have any keyboard layout they wished, and take their own copyright risks. This done, I proceeded to contact the Bangla Academy and Bangladesh Computer Council in person. Being Bangladesh, this of course met with a more affable response (I was given smiles and cups of tea in comfortable offices). Nevertheless, they still seemed – with a couple of exceptions, including the head of Daffodil Computers – strangely unimpressed that I intended to give it away for free and showed no inclination whatever of supporting it.

The internet however is a great tool for distributing Ekushey. The number of downloads is around a couple of thousand so far and the rate is increasing steadily. It is hard to say how many users the system has. Statistics suggest that Ekushey has achieved greater popularity outside of Bangladesh, where internet connectivity is better and where the notion of freeware is less of a cultural leap. I have released the program as open source so not only is it free to use and give away, users can also see how it works and modify or extend it to suit their particular purposes. It has been available for free download for slightly over a year from www.altruists.org and more people are getting involved. Together, we have steadily refined and revised it, adding extra features and increasing ease of use. The most recent improvement is the addition of support for Indian as well as Bangladesh derived Bangla fonts.

The work on Ekushey has of course improved my technical skills and deepened my appreciation of the painstaking effort required to produce software for public use. My mission to help promote the idea of free software in Bangladesh has been a great education for me in how society is organized, both in and outside the country. Poverty has combined with open flouting of copyright law in Bangla speaking areas to stop any major software company from producing a single product with Bengali language support. Extensive support for several more complicated languages (such as Chinese) shows that this is not a technical problem, so one is forced to conclude that the main factors are economic.

It is a strange world system that spends billions on projects for the 'developing world' and on mass production of computer hardware, but which leaves the development of Bangla language software to a team of enthusiastic volunteers.

Dr. Robin Upton

Altruists International