January 26, 2004

Free software forces Microsoft to support Welsh

Kevin Donnelly writes "Work over the past few months by a group of free/open-source volunteers has forced Microsoft to offer an official version of Windows XP and MSOffice in Welsh to head off the threat of wholesale defections from its software.

The Welsh Language Board (http://www.welsh-language-board.org.uk/) has just announced that Microsoft is to fund Welsh versions of Windows XP and MSOffice 2003. This is good news for Welsh, and long overdue, but it is purely coincidental that it occurs at the end of a year which has seen tremendous strides in the provision of free software in Welsh.

The list of free/open-source software in Welsh is impressive, and can already meet the needs of most computer-users, whether at home or at work. For example: - Mozilla: web browsing and email; - OpenOffice.org: word-processing, spreadsheets and presentations; - Scribus: highly-capable desktop publishing; - GNOME, KDE and Linux: the underlying operating system, offering CD and mp3 players, image editors, games, etc.

The translation work has been going on for some time, but picked up momentum in 2003. Upwards of 90,000 phrases have been translated so far by unpaid volunteers, working either alone or in a loose team, and there is now a firm base for a home-grown Welsh desktop running Welsh applications.

Microsoft has never offered an official version of Windows in Welsh (600,000 speakers), let alone of MSOffice, even though the Welsh Language Act, giving Welsh official parity with English, has been law for 10 years. Microsoft's decision now parallels that in other minority language areas which have decided to produce their own versions of free/open-source software.

In Norway, Microsoft, after refusing to provide a version of MSOffice in the minority Nynorsk (400,000 speakers) for many years, agreed to do so last year. Nynorsk is supported in Linux, and a version of OpenOffice.org has been produced by Norwegian group Skolelinux.

In Catalunya, Microsoft initially produced localised versions of Windows 95 and 98 in Catalan (6m speakers), but reportedly failed to update them. The Generalitat (Catalan devolved administration) then paid for a translation of WindowsXP, but apparently only the business version was translated. Requests for a Catalan version of MSOffice fell on deaf ears until last year, when a forthcoming Catalan version of MSOffice was announced. Again, Catalan is supported in Linux, and a version of OpenOffice.org produced by Catalan group SoftCatala.

In the UK, Microsoft has yet to offer a version of either Windows or MSOffice in Scots Gaidhlig (60,000 speakers), even though a recent consulation exercise on a Gaidhlig Language Act for Scotland may possibly, according to Comunn na Gaidhlig, result in a stronger legal status for the language.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft's new commitment to the Welsh language is real, or merely a ploy to take the steam out of the growing free/open-source software movement in Wales. In particular, will the localised versions be kept up-to-date, and will Microsoft continue to pay for that itself? The key question for policy-makers is: who is more likely to show continued commitment to the Welsh language - Welsh speakers themselves, or a multinational which has been forced to belatedly support the language for commercial reasons?

Notes:

Welsh translation projects: KDE (Kevin Donnelly, Owain Green and others) - www.kyfieithu.co.uk GNOME (Dafydd Harries and others) - http://muse.19inch.net/~daf/gnome-cy/ Abiword, Mandrake (Rhoslyn Prys) - www.meddal.org.uk Mozilla (Dewi B Jones, Rhoslyn Prys) - www.gwelywiwr.org Scribus (Kevin Donnelly) - www.kyfieithu.co.uk OpenOffice.org (Rhoslyn Prys, Dewi B Jones, David Chan) - www.meddal.org.uk

Nynorsk and Catalan: General - http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/archive/28980 .html (bottom of the page) Skolelinux - http://www.skolelinux.org/ Softcatala - http://linux.softcatala.org/"

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