Open and popular

Print edition : February 10, 2006

An open-source suite of Tamil applications for the Windows operating system is the first of its kind for the platform.

PANACEA DREAMWEAVERS, a Chennai-based software company, has released an open source suite of Tamil applications and tools into the public domain. It includes an accounting package, two dictionaries, a management software for self-help groups (SHGs), a simple text editor and a feature-rich word processor, and about 250 free fonts. Most of the products ship with the source code.

It is claimed that this is the first such initiative by a company or organisation in the area of public domain Tamil software. A similar effort was sponsored by the Central Government, in which a collection of tools was acquired from private players and released for public consumption in a compact-disk form by Minister for Communications Dayanidhi Maran. However, none of the software included in the package was in open source format.

Besides, the company claims that its efforts are a first in the Microsoft Windows-based Tamil computing environment. Most open-source Tamil applications are developed for the Linux operating system.

Open-source software is software whose source code is made available to the public, enabling anyone to copy, modify or redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees. Open source is associated with collaborative development, wherein developers who have access to the product's code correct any problems or deficiencies in it or add additional features, thereby helping the software to evolve. Many such applications are backed by a large number of developers from all over the world and have evolved into robust systems.

Some well-known examples of open-source initiatives are the Linux operating system, the Integrated Development Environment Eclipse, the Apache web server and the Mozilla suite, including the web browser Firefox, which recorded its 100 millionth download recently.

One of the most prominent advocates of free software is the Free Software Movement started by Richard Stallman in 1983. The movement is also active in India, but its adherents focus all their energies on writing software for open-source operating systems such as Linux and not for the commercial Windows platform.

In the CD under review, the products are neatly divided into sections: Panacea Apps (short for applications), Panacea Desk, Panacea Valaiyodi, and Source.

Panacea Apps comprises Mugavari (Tamil-English address book), Sangam Pro (SHG management package), Selvam (accounting software), Valluvan (documentation software), and Pulavan-Paalam (dictionaries).

The Panacea Desk folder comprises Pathippu-250 (collection of 250 fonts), R4U (English-Tamil word processor), Saarathy (keyboard driver) and Tamil Olai (simple Tamil text editor).

The Source folder includes the source code of all the products except R4U and Valaiyodi.

According to the company, Sangam Pro is meant for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to assess and evaluate the performance of SHGs. Some of the features are the ability to enter and save details of loans, repayments, meeting schedules, deposits and membership.

Selvam, the software for maintaining accounts in Tamil, is aimed at small and medium enterprises and is also suited for home users. R4U, a Tamil-English word processor, easily creates Tamil and even multilingual documents. Users can easily switch between English and Tamil typing.

The other products in the suite are also useful and easy to navigate. The company's stated mission to develop the Valaiyodi browser into one that can translate English Web pages into Tamil is something to look forward to.

Th applications have a few bugs, but they are minor and should not stand in the way of encouraging such attempts. The country sorely needs free software and open-source initiatives for the Information Technology revolution to reach most segments of society. And it is widely accepted that the best way to go about achieving this is to write software in the language of the people and make it available free of cost.

Nevertheless, a few points need to be made. The collection of fonts in TAB and TAM formats is no doubt excellent but run the risk of obsolescence in a world that is quickly adopting Unicode as the standard for recognising non-English textual characters.

In text processing, Unicode takes the role of providing a unique a number for each character. In other words, Unicode represents a character in an abstract way, and leaves the visual rendering (size, shape, font or style) to other software, such as a Web browser or a word processor.

Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP make extensive use of Unicode as an internal representation of text, while Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, BSD and Mac OS X have adopted it as the basis of representation of multilingual text.

Secondly, the dictionaries - both of which are well-structured and simple to use - need to be updated. The Tamil language has kept pace with the modern world and a dictionary with contemporary words and phrases and their usage will be most handy.

It is hoped that the budding entrepreneurs behind the venture will do what is needed, for the collective good of the Tamil computing world. Panacea Dreamweavers, which is hardly a year old, is the brainchild of a group of entrepreneurs whose goal is to develop solutions for the Tamil language computing space, according to the founders. Their corporate philosophy is that Tamil language software must not place any financial compulsions on the end-user.

The software developer community in India and abroad would do well to emulate this endeavour and come out with more such products so that the divide between the digital haves and have-nots is bridged.

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