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Digital Khmer: a work in progress

Some mobiles and computers have offered Khmer for a while now, but its far from universal


How long will it be before every mobile in Cambodia offers Khmer-language texting? IStock

Any document typed in any font other than Khmer Unicode won’t be signed by Deputy Prime Minster Sok An."

THE government has already begun to use the globalised Khmer Unicode script for its ministry Web sites, in a move supporters say will widen the computer language’s use and grow the Kingdom’s information technology sector.

“Any document typed in any font other than Khmer Unicode won’t be signed by Deputy Prime Minster Sok An,” said Noy Shoung, deputy secretary general of the National Information Communications Technology Development Authority (NIDA).

The government’s endorsement of Khmer Unicode brings the font system one step closer to universal acceptance, with developers so far unable to agree on which of several script programs should be used.

Alternatives include Limon and ABC, which opponents say these scripts are too rigid to be useful.

Linguists and programmers have debated for years the best method of unifying the Khmer language encoding system, with an increasing number moving toward Khmer Unicode but others continuing their support for older fonts.

Chea Sok Huor, who has been a member of the Committee for Standardisation of Khmer Scripts in Computers since it began in March 2000, said the green light came “after 10 years of development and countless negotiation[s]” with international companies, including Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Yahoo and others.

Chea Sok Huor also works for a group called PAN Localisation, which releases basic tool kits to helps users transition to Khmer Unicode, one of a number of computer languages used to create a usable script in Khmer.

PAN Localisation has until recently distributed software for spell-checks, line breaks and conversions for Khmer Unicode. It also provided Khmer SMS, a third-party application for Java-supported mobile phones that enables users to send text messages in Khmer.

Wide acceptance of Khmer Unicode will allow the Khmer script to be supported by and integrated into software and computing devices, including mobile platforms.

“Software development for mobile devices will become a new trend in the near future,” said Suy Channe, a computer applications specialist.

Because it has a unique coding number assigned to each character, Khmer Unicode works seamlessly between platforms and applications. This means products can be launched without forcing users to worry about so-called “non-standard characters” embedded inside.

“Having Khmer Unicode enables software firms to invest in developing and tailoring software for Cambodian markets, at least seriously,” said Danh Hong, a 39-year-old typographer.

Danh Hong, who attended a Mircrosoft seminar in 2002, said he was optimistic the government move to Unicode edged Cambodia closer to use of the script in future mobile devices and mobile phones.

For example, he said: “Apple’s iPhone comes Unicode friendly.”

“To gain more Cambodian users, big companies like Nokia need to deliver more products that support the Khmer language,” he said.

The Council of Ministers announced in late 2009 that a standardised Khmer character input system be used for official documents and government correspondence.

That announcement marked a move away from 46 other types of script, like Limon and ABC, which cannot be interchanged, making them cumbersome to work with.

“Until recently, more than two months after the sub-decree to switch to Unicode, at least 80 percent of all correspondence at all ministerial levels are input in standard Khmer scripts,” said Phu Leewood, NiDA’s secretary general.

Each script had different supporters, stirring bitter conflicts in computer circles as Khmer Unicode developed and became more popular.

Unicode supporters say the final product will engender mutual communication for Cambodians in the digital age, from email users to Web surfers to software developers. Without Unicode, electronic communications have required workarounds to make text readable at its destination.

English remains the lingua franca for many computer users in Cambodia, especially those youths in their 20s, but a Khmer font, such as that featured in Microsoft Windows 7, could help people get started with computers without a language barrier, experts said.

“Microsoft integrated Khmer language supports, based solely on Unicode, in its Windows Vista when it released the operating system to the market worldwide in January 2007 and continued to improve its Windows 7 user interface,” Chan Nath, a technology specialist in Microsoft’s Development Department, told the Post.

Meanwhile, the dispute between fonts has made typos – in newspaper headlines, on street posters – a “common problem” that needs to be solved, said Nguon Vanchanti, the tech-inclined director of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh.

The institute recently issued a second version of its Khmer-language dictionary, which was typed in Khmer Unicode.

“The next things will be spell-check and auto-correct,” said Nguon Vanchanti, who manages a staff of 20 people who are constantly inputting data into a nascent e-library of religion and literature.

“We now have 70,000 pages of literary works, once available only in print,” he said. “By making them online in Khmer Unicode-based characters, the text will become not only accessible to large audiences hungry for such wealth of content but also searchable in a way that cannot be done with legacy fonts.”

Chhit Vannarith, who studied mathematics for years in Russia before creating the Limon font, welcomed the adoption of Khmer Unicode.

“I’m delighted about it and looking forward to new growth of technological developments in the next few years,” he said.

The adoption of Unicode will also help digital libraries, Chea Sok Huor said.

“When we have good optical character recognition software, we’ll be able to have a wealth of knowledge and resources in our native language on the World Wide Web for Cambodians,” he said.

Character recognition software would allow places like the Buddhist Institute and others to build searchable digital databases and archives from print documents.

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