Relaunch of Vikalpa: Engaging opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka

Vikalpa ( relaunched its website yesterday, with a renewed focus on compelling and original opinion and analysis in Sinhala from Sri Lanka.

First launched in 2007, the old website had become unwieldy, inelegant and hard to navigate. The new website introduces a number of new sections, and makes it easier to follow content updates on Twitter, Facebook, access Vikalpa’s Flickr and YouTube channels and listen to its in-house podcast productions.

An enduring challenge beyond the scope of the site, yet central to its reach and accessibility is Sinhala font installation. This of course will gradually and invariably disappear over time, with new versions of Windows for example featuring Sinhala language support out of the box. At present however, journalists and readers outside of Colombo have repeatedly asked Vikalpa for directions on how Sinhala and Tamil fonts can be installed on their PCs. One of the best resources currently in this regard are the Sinhala Bloggers Union guides.

Vikalpa’s channel on YouTube has repeatedly entered the global top 100 list. With more than 500 videos watched well over 400,000 times, short-form video content seems to be, perhaps also in the face of the technical challenges of rendering Sinhala on the web, more popular. For example, this one filmed recently in Colombo clearly showing Police protecting the thugs who attacked a peaceful protest in support of Sarath Fonseka was viewed over 9,000 times in a week.

I’m working with the Vikalpa team to develop their digital media production and web journalism skills.

E-Sanvada and Sinhala UNICODE on OS X Leopard

I last blogged about Sinhala script support in OS X Leopard in April this year and didn’t have much hopes of seeing correctly rendered fonts when I checked out E-Sanvada, a (great new) website on developmental issues in Sinhala. I was very surprised to see this:

Perfectly rendered Sinhala. Click for larger image.
Perfectly rendered Sinhala. Click for larger image.

The Sinhala script on E-Sanvada is rendered perfectly. For reference, here’s how the Sinhala Wikipedia renders on my Mac,

Sinhala on Wikipedia. Click for larger image.
Sinhala on Wikipedia. Click for larger image.

And here’s another blog in Sinhala,

Malinda's Blog in Sinhala. Click for larger image.
Malinda's Blog in Sinhala. Click for larger image.

Notice the significant qualitative difference in font rendering. What the devil is E-Sanvada doing right that even Wikipedia isn’t?

Just to note that I do not have Nicholas Shank’s Sinhala font for OS X installed. I do have the University of Colombo’s Sarasavi font and a couple of UNICODE Sinhala fonts on my Mac. If Nokia can do it even on low-end phones, I wonder why no one has come up with a simple, easy way to enable good Sinhala UNICODE rendering on OS X?

UPDATE – 5th August 2008

Malinthe’s comment below points to one explanation as to why the rendering is so good on E-Sanvada. Malinthe’s own site renders perfectly on Safari.

Sinhala font rendering on Malinthe's blog
Sinhala font rendering on Malinthe's blog

Vikalpa on my Nokia 3110c

Chamath’s comment prompted me to upload a video of browsing Vikalpa on my Nokia 3110c. The video shows me using the 3110c’s built in web browser over a GPRS connection to view content in Sinhala and Tamil UNICODE. Nothing was installed on the phone by way of fonts or software on the phone in order for the text to render as accurately as it does. Vikalpa was made mobile friendly using MoFuse.

I’ll be interested to find what other phones support vernacular UNICODE rendering. When I tried this on other Nokia models (incl. the high end N-series) and other phones, bought from outside of Sri Lanka, the fonts simply did not render properly.

And the answer to Chamath’s question is yes, the 3110c natively supports Sinhala and Tamil SMS messaging, though I’ve never figured out how to type out a message in Sinhala. The entire menu system can also run natively in Sinhala and Tamil (and some Indian languages incl. Hindi). The Sinhala script is very legible and clear, more accurate in rendering in fact than Sinhala on my Mac.

Sinhala on OS X Leopard – Still out of luck

Cerno’s post encouraged me to go back to what I had written mid-last year on the lack of Sinhala language UNICODE support on Macs. At the time I was on Tiger, Safari 2 and Firefox 2. Here’s the same page as before on the new browsers:

Click for larger image – Safari 3 on left, FF 3 Beta 5 on right

Clearly, things haven’t improved with Safari 3, Firefox 3 Beta 5 and Leopard.

I’ve download several UNICODE Sinhala font files, including Sarasavi from the University of Colombo Language Technology Research Laboratory. I’ve used their online font conversion.

Yet nothing gets the rendering quite right on Leopard, though what I see is strangely much better than what’s rendered on Cerno’s Mac.
Sinhala Blog Post

Anyway, I still have to Bootcamp it into Vista whenever I have to do any serious work with Sinhala.

Here’s a tip for Windows users – the rather unimaginatively EnSiTip English Sinhala popup dictionary extension for Firefox, which under Windows is really quite brilliant and I found on the LTRL blog.

WARNING: For folks who are so advanced with technology, I would have imagined that LTRL would have had the good sense to optimise images for the web. But no. The LTRL blog has gems like 2Mb+ JPG images which make the page a nightmare to load. Just don’t try it over SLT ADSL on a bad day…

In short, us Mac users are still out of luck. Which is such a pity, since in every other respect, Macs trump Windows hands down (my two year old Dual Core Macbook Pro gave a Windows Vista Experience rating higher than a Core2Duo Sony Vaio bought earlier this year).

Are ICTA / LTRL listening?

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?)