November 5, 2004
Ethiopic goes mobile
Here's an article I just did for Wired on research which could bring Ethiopic characters -- hundreds of them -- to mobile phone text messaging.
By Andrew Heavens
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- For centuries, its letters have covered the pages of goatskin manuscripts, illuminated Bibles and the chronicles of ancient kings.
Now one of the world's oldest living alphabets could be about to make its debut on a mobile phone, if a group of Ethiopian academics gets its way.
Professors and research students here in the Ethiopian capital have just released a piece of groundbreaking research that they hope will open the door to SMS messaging in Ethiopic characters.
The earliest use of Ethiopic lettering has been traced to before the fourth century. Today the letters are shared by a range of languages spoken by millions of people across the Horn of Africa and hundreds of thousands of emigrants settled in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe.
The new report, catchily titled "Ethiopic Keyboard Mapping and Predictive Text Inputting Algorithm in a Wireless Environment," sets out to overcome some of the substantial technical obstacles to the alphabet's transition to the mobile age.
Its authors said they hoped it would also persuade mobile companies like Nokia that there is a viable market for mobile texting in Ethiopic.
"We think there is a great need for it," said Solomon Atnafu from Addis Ababa University's department of computer science, one of the key advisers on the project.
"There are so many people in Ethiopia who cannot write English. A localized version of SMS would open up the technology to the whole population."
Languages that use Ethiopic as their alphabet include Ethiopia's official tongue, Amharic, and the ancient Orthodox Christian script Ge'ez, still chanted in incense-filled Ethiopian and Eritrean churches to this day.
One of the main obstacles to widespread Ethiopic texting is the sheer number of characters involved. Texters would have to find a way of using the nine character keys on a mobile phone to type out the 345 letters and letter variations available to an Amharic writer.
The new report describes two possible ways of mapping a limited set of 210 characters onto a mobile keypad, using a combination of keystrokes for each letter.
The number of letters had to be cut down, the report explains, because of another technical limitation -- the average memory of a mobile phone.
"Most cell-phone manufacturers have a 64-KB memory limit (in some cases less) on the size of the wireless application file," states the report. "But most Ethiopic font files commonly used in desktop applications alone have sizes in the ranges of 175-250 KB."
The report also sets out a road map for detailed statistical study of the language and its most common letter combinations. That would be used to produce a "predictive text inputting" algorithm to allow the phone to "guess" which word the user was trying to type, thereby saving scores of keystrokes.
Text messaging has already proved a huge hit in established mobile markets like Europe, where teenagers have used the technology to flood the airwaves with abbreviated gossip and chat.
But Ethiopia's academics have already set out a much more substantial use for the standard: market and weather reports for the country's often drought-stricken farmers.
"Mobile phones are very much cheaper than PCs," said Solomon. "We could get them out to every corner of the country, even to the farmers.
"With Ethiopic texting, you could access market information. A farmer in the north of the country could find out the price of coffee in Addis."
Ethiopia was last month labeled one of the "least connected" countries in the world by its own infrastructure minister, Kasu Yilala. He told a conference of telecom experts in Addis Ababa: "Up until recently, access to telecom services in rural areas was almost nonexistent." The resulting digital divide between Ethiopia and the rest of the connected world, he added, was "closing the door to economic opportunity."
Some of that physical infrastructure shortfall has recently been balanced by the spread of the mobile-phone service offered by the state monopoly provider, Ethiopian Telecommunications. English-language texting services were introduced last December.
"It has not proved very popular," said Solomon. "But I am very optimistic that our system could catch on." He added that the research team, which includes research students Shiferaw Abebe and Tewodros Seyum, had already received expressions of interest from one of Nokia's main distributors in Ethiopia.
No one was available for comment from Nokia's headquarters in Finland.
Posted by aheavens at November 5, 2004 1:40 PM
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Posted by: blessing moyo at June 7, 2005 8:38 AM