August 25, 2003

Open Asia: Open source in Afghanistan and Bangladesh

- by Frederick Noronha -
This week we begin a country-by-country survey of the availability of open source software across individual Asian countries at the top of the alphabet, with Afghanistan and Bangladesh.


Afghanistan, until recently, was listed one of the few
countries in the world with no known FLOSS-related activity. However, the recent war over Afghanistan brought the issue to the fore, with reports alleging that while the
Taliban "prefer" products of the Microsoft giant (the now-defunct official Web site was reported to run under Microsoft-IIS/5.0 on Windows
2000) the emerging "good guys" in the battle ran their
Web site on Apache 1.3.20 on Debian GNU/Linux.


By contrast with Afghanistan, BDLUG, Bangladesh's GNU/Linux
enthusiasts LUG, and its
mailing list have a moderate level of activity. Some of its plans include a
Linux fair in Bangladesh. Its site appears fairly well maintained, and with a number of interesting
inputs and arguments. It notes:

Linux (Unix) is not only an OS, it is a large world. A system
administrator knows about the admin utilities, but there is a lot to
learn in TeX. A programmer knows C and other languages, but he can
learn a lot about the workings of Linux from an admin. A writer knows
about Emacs and TeX, but there is a lot to learn in sed and awk that
will help him. So, no matter in what field you are working, this group
can help you.

Local language products are a major
issue in countries like Bangladesh. Most Bengladeshi speak Bangla, or Bengali. Bangla is the fifth most spoken language in the
world, with a total of some 207 million speakers -- ahead of Portuguese, and
behind Spanish.

Taneem Ahmed said in a posting on BDLUG's mailing list, "For Linux we already have support to create Bangla
documents using a world wide accepted and recognized standard, yet we won't
use it. Anyway, from the limited experience I gained trying to help support
Bangla on Linux I am just amazed to see that one person is holding a nation
hostage, and all everyone can do is agree with whatever propaganda is being
spread. And this is not only for Linux. Even for Windows I have seen
programs that uses Unicode standards, but we just won't use it.... I am
sorry I don't agree with that at all, to me the only road-block we have is
not knowing what is out there. Maybe we should first start with the fact
that *Microsoft Word* is not the only way of creating documents."

Ahmed is a member of Ankur, a
project run by people from both Bangladesh and India, mostly members of
ILUG-Cal and BDLUG, whose goal is "to support Bengali at X server's application level."
This solution could benefit speakers of the Bangla language both in India
and Bangladesh. "The only difference I see between our group and most of the other groups," Ahmed says, "is
that we are following the mainstream development, and we use what is
available (or will be available soon) to support Bengali. We want people to
be able to install any Linux distro of their choice, and use Bengali on it
with out recompiling anything."

He contrasts this with the Indix project, which he says has done an "amazing
job" and which he greatly appreciates. But, he argues, "how many
average user would actually download the modified X server, gtk, etc.,
libraries and recompile them? Also users will be limited to library version
provided by Indix, and every day we are seeing new programs using newer
versions of these libraries."

Ahmed says his group has focused its development efforts to create programs
for end users, such as the transliteration program Lekho, based on QT; bspeller, a
Bengali spell checker program based on aspell and gtk; and xponjika, a Bengali calendar with a daily diary that is a hack
version of Xdiary.

"Lekho is actually a multi-platform program," Ahmed says. "It can
produce HTML or LaTeX files and has limited spell checking capability.
Bspeller is a lightweight text editor with aspell's powerful spell checking
and suggestion capability. It is also capable of printing and generating PostScript
files using Open Type fonts, a feature missing in all the mainstream
text editors."

Free Bangla Font, a sister project of Ankur, has created four Open Type
Bangla fonts. Its members have started doing a GNOME translation. "One of our
more ambitious project is a Bengali dictionary project. Under the documents
section we also have few mini-howtos about how to set up a Linux box for
Bengali," says Ahmed.

Ahmed says they are also trying to work out an understanding with BornoSoft
to help create a Bengali XIM for GNU/Linux using BornoSoft's writing scheme,
which would then be made free for Linux. "Personally I think this would be a
great step toward using Bengali in Linux, but we will see what happens,"
says Ahmed with cautious optimism.

Meanwhile, members of the BDLUG have created a mailing list to do more work on Bangla GNOME translation.

Another organization, BIOS, promises Bangla Innovation through Open Source.
Its mission is to "provide guidelines and technology for
developing open source Bangla applications in Linux."

Mohammed A Muquit has a fascinating page of free software, including
Bangla fonts with Linux groff, an LDAP authentication module for Apache Web
server, good old MasterMind for Linux, a simple PPP dialer for Linux
(mppp), mxconsole, and lots more.

Interestingly, Bangladesh FLOSS enthusiasts cite magazines from nearby
India -- such as PCQuest and Chip (now called Digit) -- for promoting
awareness of GNU/Linux.

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