Blogging in UNICODE Sinhala in Sri Lanka

There’s an interesting debate on about the merits of blogging in Sinhala, brought about by Apramana’s Sinhala Blog Marathon. The two central issues of contention are whether blogs in Sinhala capture enough of an audience to be monetised and whether UNICODE is a viable means of writing and reading content in Sinhala online.

The former issue is one that has been debated at incredible length on Lirneasia’s blog, among other places. Rumblinglankan’s post on the other hand, questions the viability of Sinhala blogging because of its abysmal readership. It’s also a post that got some interesting comments by those who feel, as I strongly do, that it is vital to encourage and strengthen blogging in the swabhasha.

Vikalpa gets around 263 pageviews a day. For a site that is entirely in UNICODE, that’s not half bad in comparison to the traffic on other blogs located in Sri Lanka (Groundviews gets around 700 page views a day on average).

The concerns about the installation of UNICODE fonts on Windows XP aside, Rumblinglankan’s contention that UNICODE Sinhala is still not ready for mainstream blogging is different to my personal experience. On the installation front, I agree that things could be better. Though I’ve never had a problem in the installation of UNICODE fonts, many I know including experienced journalists who are proficient in using PCs, have. We also often get complaints from users who have not installed UNICODE on their computers that all they see on their screens is gibberish (easily solved by emailing them with a pointer to the site’s Font Installation help page). I’ve been told repeatedly that UNICODE is annoyingly dissimilar to what many touch typists in Sinhala have learnt as the keyboard mapping in non-UNICODE fonts. There are also some other font rendering issues that have cropped up in our work, having used UNICODE exclusively and extensively on Vikalpa and the University of Colombo’s excellent UNICODE conversion tools. In sum, it’s easier to view UNICODE Sinhala fonts than to enter them. And the fact that they simply don’t display accurately on Macs is a bloody annoyance, but thankfully Bootcamp or Parallels come in handy here. The ICTA UNICODE enabling pack works fine on both.

I tend to agree with Indi’s comments in Rumblinglankan’s post that if we don’t begin to produce and promote Sinhala content, we’ll never have enough impetus to get more people blogging and online. Blogging in Sinhala is not always about or pegged to the ability to monetise content. The growth of Sinhala blogs on Kottu over the past year along is testimony that more and more people are blogging in general, and blogging in Sinhala in particular (and Kottu does not aggregate all blogs in and on Sri Lanka). Hyper-local media in Sri Lanka will not be based on English. Though traditional media forays on to the web still, by and large, do not use UNICODE when publishing content in Sinhala / Tamil, I see the transition to it as inevitable.

For example, Vikalpa attracts a fair bit of traffic from the diaspora – we can only assume that there is a significant audience out of Sri Lanka who do read content in Sinhala and in fact, in the case of Vikalpa, look out for content sadly not to be found in the Fourth Estate.

Personally, the most compelling reason to go with Sinhala / Tamil UNICODE on Vikalpa was that content thus entered could be searched for and accessed through Google, Live, Yahoo and the like. Vikalpa is designed to be a record of alternative viewpoints for posterity and UNICODE made the content as accessible and future proof as possible.

As an aside, it’s interesting in this regard to note the growth of the Sinhala and Tamil SMS applications and services on mobile phones in Sri Lanka, pioneered largely by the thought-leadership and technical prowess of Microimage. However, while the Groundviews Mobile attracts around a 100 page views a day, the Vikalpa mobile site that I created using the same technology worked perfectly on my mobile phone bought in Sri Lanka from Softlogic but did not on more sophisticated N-series phones bought abroad. I can only guess that the Nokia phones Softlogic sells in Sri Lanka, with their built in Sinhala character-set, support UNICODE Sinhala font rendering through the phone’s built in browser whereas phones outside of Sri Lanka obviously don’t. (Which begs the question, is there a software upgrade for Nokia’s that Softlogic can do to make them render Sinhala fonts?)