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Writing a new chapter in technology

Writing a new chapter in technology


Agroup of leading information technology companies, called the Unicode Consortium,

is standardizing Khmer script into a format that will allow Cambodians with no foreign

language skills to utilize the world of computer technology.

Students are taught how to type in Khmer using Unicode at the Open-Society Khmer Software Initiative.

The Unicode group, which includes companies such as Apple, IBM and Microsoft, is

creating an international-standard, computer-friendly Khmer script that, experts

say, will revolutionize the way Cambodians interface with computers, and eventually

transform the way the country's business is conducted.

"Now you have to speak English to use a computer," said Hay Chanthah, computer

technician at the Center for Social Development (CSD). "Unicode will change


With applications including banking services, national elections and mobile-phone

text messages in Khmer, Unicode's implementation appears poised to make a crucial

contribution to Cambodia's overall development.

"What Unicode does is reduce the digital divide," said Javier Sola, coordinator

of the Khmer Software Initiative of the Open Institute. "Now, you have an elite

who can speak English and use a computer but everyone else can do neither. The first

divide is language, then it gets bigger with technology. So if you take out the language

divide you allow everyone to use technology. This will improve access to the job

market as you will only need computer skills, not English language skills, for many


With unemployment in the national and political spotlight, Unicode implementation

could mean more jobs for Cambodia's young job-seekers.

"A country can only advance using its own language," said Sola. "You

can't expect a country to adopt the language of technology. Technological advances

come through the local language and standardization."

Unicode provides a unique, readable number for every character, no matter what the

platform, program, or language. Before Unicode arrived in Cambodia in 1996, people

and organizations followed more than 30 different ways of encoding the font for Khmer


"They used their own encoding systems and there was no standardization, which

caused chaos," Sola said.

As recent Unicode demonstrations have proven, the speed at which Khmer can be typed

has been dramatically increased.

"If you type two documents - one in [old-style computerized Khmer] and one in

Unicode - the Unicode one would be finished much faster," Chanthah said. "Unicode

means you don't have to keep pressing shift, control, alt [to create a word], you

just type."

Pre-Unicode computerized Khmer scripts - known collectively as "legacy"

fonts - required the typist to press a complex series of shortcut keystrokes to create

a single Khmer character.

"Before, you had to manually enter each piece of each character," said

Chea Sok Huor, project manager, PAN Localization Cambodia. "Now, the software

creates the characters as you type."

Unicode has transformed computerized Khmer into an actual script, not just a string

of pictographic representations of characters as was the case with legacy fonts.

"Khmer Google can find Khmer sites but only if they are typed in Unicode,"

said Sok Huor. "Unicode made it possible to develop a 'sorting tool' for computerized

Khmer script. Last year, the National Election Committee used this to sort the register

of names alphabetically."

This kind of technological advance will revolutionize more than just computer use

in Cambodia, said Sok Huor.

"We want to do SMS [text messages] in Khmer," he said. "Now, we can

send pictures but not writing. But this will change."

Implementing Unicode does present challenges. The switch from legacy fonts means

a different way of typing and requires nonstandard keyboard engraving, which is a

hardware modification, Sola said.

"It is difficult to get people to give up the old as there are people who will

have to relearn how to type," he said. "The Unicode keyboard was designed

so that the change would not be so big - simplicity in change was a big part of the


Some large companies now operating with legacy fonts have shown initial reluctance

to use the Unicode format.

"Banks and institutions often use legacy fonts," Chanthah said. "In

some companies they just set the font for the entire company. Their keyboards are

set up that way, so to change will take time."

Yet the PAN localization program has created a "user friendly" way of converting

document written in Legacy fonts to Unicode, said Sok Huer.

"We now have 145 fonts that we can convert," he said. "And if someone

has a font that they can't convert, they should send it to us and within a week we

can convert it."


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