Promoting Khmer language computing and staving off Microsoft’s near monopoly are the driving ideas behind a joint government-NGO project that promises to bring free Khmer operating system software to Cambodian computers by next year.
Open source software, developed by programmers around the world who believe that software should be freely available and be capable of being altered to suit a user’s needs, is being translated into Khmer by software developers at Open Forum of Cambodia.
Khmer versions of software programs, which can run on Microsoft Windows and includes programs similar to Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point, are being tested and have been distributed to more than 1,000 computers around the country, according to Noy Shoung, the government official responsible for promoting the software.
One thousand Khmer script keyboards, being manufactured in China, are expected to arrive later this month.
The office software, available through OpenOffice.org, has also been joined by a Khmer language version of the Firefox Internet browser and the Thunderbird e-mail software program.
The benefits are that young Cambodians from the countryside who hope to win a high-paying office job no longer have to spend months learning English before sitting down for computer lessons.
It will also be much easier to teach government officials to use computers, said Noy Shoung, the deputy secretary-general of the National Information Communications Technology Developments Authority.
“How can you computerize the government if not everyone speaks English? You cannot run a government on a foreign language,” said Javier Sola, the coordinator of Open Forum’s Khmer Software Initiative.
Cambodia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and the expectation that it will begin enforcing intellectual property laws means that cheap, pirated software might not be as easy to obtain here in the coming years.
Another important issue is that Microsoft has no plans to translate their new operating system software, due out at the end of next year, into Khmer, said Keo Sophorn, a software programmer at Open Forum.
“Microsoft is good, but on the other hand, it is very expensive. So it is not suitable for our own society,” he said. “And open source software is comparable to Microsoft.”
Part of Open Forum’s role in the project is to come up with a Khmer computer glossary that expands the meaning of Khmer words to fit into technical terms, rather than using English words that are more difficult for Cambodians to memorize.
That’s what makes the project as much cultural as technical, Sola said. It is partly about fending off foreign words and maintaining the Khmer language, he said.
A copy of the government’s master plan for promoting open source shows the government hopes to install a Khmer language Linux open source operating system, which would run in place of the Microsoft Windows operating system, by 2006. Government computers, then, would be completely free of Microsoft.
Government officials were trained on the OpenOffice.org software in Stung Treng in April. Most officials who attended the training were already familiar with computers, “so it was easy for them to learn,” said Ourn Bora, chief of cabinet for Stung Treng’s provincial office.
“This is about national dignity to see Khmer script on a computer. It is historical,” he said. “Even those who prefer English language software, they support it. They were surprised…. But I don’t know if they will use it.”
A tour of a half dozen Internet cafes on Phnom Penh’s riverfront last week found bewildered faces when cafe workers were asked about open source, several of whom couldn’t imagine a PC without a Microsoft operating system.
Several said they considered the anarchy surrounding the hundreds of Khmer computer fonts now in circulation to be a more pressing issue.
So Sok Ny, a research manager at the Buddhist Institute, has installed the software, with the help of Open Forum, on several of the office computers.
“We have tried it a few times. You can say that we are testing it,” he said. “For me, it s not so smooth. Some of the words sound strange.”
But if open source doesn’t catch on with computer users, at least the government will have a card to play with Microsoft if the corporate giant ever decides to enter the Cambodian market.
“With open source, you have nothing to lose,” Sola said. “When you have choice, you have power. You can negotiate with Microsoft, which no country has ever done.”
Other countries have tried to promote open source software over Microsoft-oriented software. But the goal is to have Cambodia become the first country to have more open source users than Microsoft, Sola said.
“In four years there will be a real market here, so they will come. And they’ll come because they are afraid of open source,” he said.
Noy Shuong said the government’s campaign to promote open source is more about saving money as the project could save the government more than $10 million in licensing fees with Microsoft, he said.
“We are a free market. Let’s compete. It will make it better,” he said. “Who is the best? The customer will select.”