Follies in national keyboard layout remodelling

by Abu Jar M Akkas | Published at 12:05am on May 10, 2018


AFEW fringe online media outlets published a report on March 25 on the modernisation of, or update on, the national keyboard that the Bangladesh Computer Council worked out in 2004. Mainstream media are hardly interested in such news because either this has become a dead issue, there is no politics about it or there are not many reporters having a grasp of the matter.
The case could yet be entirely different. As Bijoy keyboard layout is predominant in the publishing industry, the media houses hardly see any prospect of modernising the national standard layout that was made in 2004.
Whatever the case is, the piece of news gives out some information worth thinking. The Bangladesh Computer Council, which has been working on the issue for long, is modernising the national standard layout. But the worrying part is that the proponents, within and outside the government, are trying to model the national standard on the Bijoy layout.
Along with this, to effect such a change, the proponents have already changed the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) values of the Bangla letters or glyphs — the word ‘glyph’ sounds logical in the case at hand — to be modelled on the Bijoy encoding in the form of Bangla Standard Code for Information Interchange the way Indians made India Script Code for Information Interchange, which provided for the basis of the Bangla Unicode block in the early 1990s.
The national standard layout and the Bijoy layout differ in a few key assignments, prominently in the middle of the home row. But there are several revisions of the Bijoy layout, apparently in the interest of its graduation from the proprietary-encoding legacy font system to Unicode. While the fixed layout of the Bijoy keyboard makes it stand out from some others that use heuristic algorithms, yet because of the difference that comes up in the letter frequency calculated on the legacy and the Unicode systems, the Bijoy layout does not seem to be the most efficient layout. In fact, it had never been.
Both the Bijoy layout and the national standard layout, which had mostly been based on the Bijoy layout as the key assignments show, had mnemonic assignments such as the aspirated consonants being on the shifted key and the non-aspirates on the regular key, which offers a low learning curve, but cuts down on typing efficiency.
Such mnemonic assignments are also an obstacle to typing in that fingers need to travel a lot on the keyboard. If the most frequent letters had been on the most efficient keypresses, where the fingers could reach out without being tired, typing would have been easy and fast. The Bangla consonant ‘ra’ is the most frequent among the consonants — which means that in a volume of text, ‘ra’ occurs most frequently — but the consonant is assigned to the V-key, down the home row, and to the left index finger. For right-handed people, the right index finger is the most efficient and it would have worked best if the letter had been assigned to the J-key.
The second vowel marker of the Bangla alphabet also occurs very frequently in text but on the Bijoy layout, it is assigned to the F-key, which is associated with the left index finger. The national layout is in a better position in this regard as on the keyboard, it is assigned to the J-key, which is associated with the right index finger.
The second most frequent vowel marker in Bangla is ‘e-kar’, but the marker is bound to the C-key on both the national and the Bijoy layout, down the home row, associated with the left middle finger. In view of letter frequency map, the keys are not properly assigned, which makes typing slower and makes fingers tired. The home row is always the best place to have the letters that are used most.
The design of a proper, efficient fixed layout, therefore, warrants the consideration of the letter frequency matched with the efficient fingers to offer ease of use and speed in typing. This may have a high learning curve, but efforts ultimately pay, especially in writing long pieces, more so in book-length materials.
In view of all this, it is nothing but a folly to match the national standard layout on the Bijoy layout. There is only one reason that could prompt such move and this is the wide currency that the Bijoy layout has already earned. While keyboarding habit dies hard, it changes with generation. Elders who have so far been comfortable with the Bijoy or the national standard layout might initially falter on a new efficient layout, but in about a decade or two, the new one will replace the old one. The proponents might consider this issue in earnest.
The second problem that comes with the piece of news is that the ASCII values have been changed to match the proprietary Bijoy encoding of letters. The Unicode system has been around for about three decades. People who were mainly in the business of Bangla computing tried to oppose Unicode in its initial days. Some others not having a clear understanding of the issue joined in. But there is no denying that Unicode is the future and people need to get at it.
In Unicode, the layout or the input mechanism is different from the font system. Unicode defines the text and probably in the best possible way. Desktop publishing software still do not fully offer the Unicode support, but they definitely will, in near future. In a situation like this, re-assignments of the letters in font encoding appears to be the other folly in the process.
What is still wanting in the Bangla computing is quality typefaces, or font files, strictly adhering to the Unicode standard. Some efforts are noticed off and on, here and there, but they are mostly for display use and are in no way meant for text use.
The government, or the Election Commission for that matter, released a typeface called Nikosh, which expands to Nirbachan Commission Secretariat in Bangla, in 2008 and then the government, with the help of the Bangla Academy and graphic design students of the University of Dhaka, released another typeface, Amar Barnamala, in 2013. But they are hardly graceful as text typefaces. Nothing further could heard of the initiative.
What the government now needs to do is to design a fixed layout, preferably along with a version for people not willing to invest time in learning the layout, that would offer the ease of use and the optimal speed in typing. What it further needed to be done is to design, or encourage others to design, typefaces that could be used in book publishing.

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age