24 October 2004

Ethiopia: Wish to SMS in Ge'ez?

Ethiopic Characters Make First Step into Mobile Technology

Ge'ez evokes the ancient and the religious, the chanting of priests in long robes; parchment manuscripts and gold and silver crosses of the old days. The Ge'ez alphabet, also known as the Ethiopic writing system, has always been a source of pride for Ethiopians whose country happens to be the only African country with its own alphabet. Nonetheless it has been regarded as a drawback to the assimilation of information and communication technology with its ungainly 300 plus characters.

From the old typewriter to the new computer and the newer mobile phones, everything has worked with the 26 letters of the English alphabet, consisting of 10 times less characters than its Ge'ez counterpart.

Nothing is a debacle to imaginative souls. Ethiopia will not have to discard its literary tradition to embrace modern information technology.

Young Ethiopian researchers at the Addis Abeba University are making sure the numerous characters of the Ethiopic writing system are only a challenge to be overcome, not a hindrance to its slow but sure integration into the information era. Actually, they stated boldly in their research that the "Ethiopic writing system has now entered the wireless revolution."

Shiferaw Abebe and Tewodros Seyum are post-graduate students at the departments of Computer Science and Information Science, Addis Abeba University. Their research, Ethiopic Keyboard Mapping and Predictive Text Inputting Algorithm in a Wireless Environment, took on two uphill challenges on two fronts.

The first one was to enable 345 characters, including the eight punctuation marks and 20 numerals, to be written by using just nine of the 12 keys on the mobile phone. However, this is challenged on the technology front; whereas the wireless application file in most mobile phones is limited to a memory of 64kb, the Ethiopic character population required more space, 175 to 250kb.

By dropping all characters that could be done away with, which included opting for the Arabic numerals instead of the Ethiopic ones, the researchers managed to cut the 345 characters down to 210. Ethiopians are not going to need 210 keys on the mobile.

The key pad will carry only 30 basic letters alongside the English letters, and all the other letters which are invisible to the user will emerge on the screen while writing, using one of a number of text inputting methods suggested by the researchers.

But using it will require some patience; to write Abebe, a three letter word in Amharic, you may have to tap on the keys of your mobile 11 times. Should you wish to congratulate some folks, well, that could go to as high as 41 taps.

Dr Solomon Atnafu, advisor to the researchers and staff of the Computer Science Department, said that more work will be done to bring the memory requirement of the Ethiopian characters down to 64kb. This is the bigger challenge to overcome before people can begin to SMS in Amharic.

A promise made by a Nokia representative has been taken to heart. At an international symposium on ICT, organized by the Graduate School of Telecommunication and Information Technology, where the research was presented, the representative said that Nokia would look into how it could cooperate in this endeavour.

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