Digital Khmer: Cracking the code

The quest to keep the Khmer script alive in a digital world

Don Weinland
October 11, 2012
Digital Khmer: Cracking the code
Trail blazer: Javier Solá, founder of KhmerOS, which develops computer tools in Khmer to promote the economic development of Cambodia

A decade ago, the Khmer script was facing one of its biggest modern identity crises. The fluid, often flame-like writing system found itself in a losing position between a rapidly expanding digital world and nearly 1,400 years of history.

A lack of funding and technical skills had put Cambodia far behind its neighbours in the computer sciences, leading to pessimism about the digital transition of its language. While strong interests existed in a pixilated Khmer, disorganisation and stubbornness on the part of independent programmers had seen the development of more than 20 different fonts by 2002, none of which were mutually intelligible on computers.

The language looked doomed to fall behind the curve. In contrast with the success of Thai and Vietnamese in the digital age, the Roman alphabet took on an important role for Cambodians in online communications.

Scroll through a young Cambodian’s Facebook page today and one will find the local alphabet in recent posts, input below photos or in status updates. Some have even registered their account names in their native language, although the number is small. In a country where per capita gross domestic product has yet to break the $1,000 mark, and more than 70% of the country still engages in farming, it’s no surprise that demand for local digital content has lagged. Yet experts, many of those who helped put Khmer onto desktop monitors, said after years of struggling to get a foothold, the script is poised to fill new roles for its more than 15 million users worldwide.

Khmer first appeared on computer screens during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea – there were few computers at the time, however. The Vietnamese developed the programme, Khmer In Office, or KIO, in the 1980s, running on DOS. It was quickly displaced by the entrance of the Windows operating system into Cambodia, according to Norbert Klein, a programmer on the scene during the country’s transition to a more market-based economy in the early 1990s.

“With Windows, suddenly it was possible to start developing fonts,” he said. “Cambodians abroad started to create systems, but none of them were in communication with each other.” A glut of digital scripts was the result – Klein counted 23 – with each programmer pushing for the use of his or her version. It was at this point, at the turn of the millennium, that the direction of the digital language looked uncertain.

Enter Unicode: the world’s most extensive standard for language encoding. Individual fonts must be found and downloaded to materialise meaningfully on a monitor, explains Javier Solá, founder of KhmerOS, an organisation aimed at pushing Cambodia further into the digital age. Unicode, on the other hand, assigns a unique value to each character of the more than 100 languages encoded with it, making it much more difficult for the digital representation to fall into disuse or disappear. In a way, Solá says, the system immortalises a language.

One of Khmer’s biggest digital achievements in the past decade has been made in the classroom and the teaching of open source systems

Norbert Klein, Cambodia Chapter of the Internet Society

“Before it depended on the font you had on your computer,” he said. “[With Unicode], it’ll be readable 100 years from now. You won’t need to go find a font.” Kambuja Soriya, a Buddhist literary journal printed between 1926 and 2005, has recently been digitalised, Solá added, preserving a valuable cultural work that would otherwise be subject to slow deterioration on a library shelf.

With the coding hurdle cleared, digital Khmer faced the same challenge that stands in front of it today: a vacuum of content, applications, and perhaps most prominently, devices on which to use the language.

Computing in Cambodia is still very much for those who can speak English, said Stephen Gibberd, a Phnom Penh-based internet technologies consultant. To this day, few devices – such as mobile phones or tablets – support the language. Technology companies that have attempted to capture this market have ended up with products far too complicated for everyday use.

“You need a manual to send a text in Khmer. You have ten buttons and 90 something characters. You end up hitting one button an average of five times,” Gibberd said of the handsets marketed by Metfone and Hello, two of Cambodia’s biggest mobile service providers.

Photo: Nicolas Axelrod/SEA Globe. Internet society: Norbert Klein
Photo: Nicolas Axelrod/SEA Globe.
Internet society: Norbert Klein

China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp, two of the world’s biggest technology companies, have a keen interest in developing phones that would make texting in Khmer easier, Gibberd said. A locally developed tablet using Google’s Android operating system may also be on the market soon, he said.

This year, more than half of the country’s bandwidth ran through mobile connections, demonstrating Cambodia’s newfound technological savviness. That said, connections on smart phones or tablets are still far cheaper than fibre connections. The latest internet-penetration figure stands at a mere 4% in a country with less than 15 million people. Wariness over investing in Khmer-language digital content or devices for these users is not unfounded.

Compared to the surrounding countries, reading culture is weak in the Kingdom, Klein said. A surge in the availability of Khmer content will not necessarily lead to new interest here.

One of Khmer’s biggest digital achievements in the past decade has been made in the classroom, where the government has mandated the teaching of so-called open source systems, Klein said. Microsoft’s reluctance to create a version of Windows in the language pushed Cambodia’s Ministry of Education toward the free software development platform in 2009. Now 40,000 instructors across the country teach open source software instead of Windows.

As intellectual property laws come closer to being imposed in the country, the cost of software has become another important factor.

“These are people who are calculating cost and legality well into the future,” Klein said, adding that only a few years ago the cost of purchasing Windows and Office licenses for all Cambodian government and school computers would have caused the system to collapse.

The vast majority of computers in Cambodia still use Windows. Gibberd said this is the key to the future of computing in the country. If Cambodia can move toward more open-source programming, the language – or at least its online version – should have a robust future.

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