Ka-Naada, a Bengaluru based company founded by an NRI, is passionate about ensuring that Indians have a keyboard that can flawlessly type all Indian languages and do so without struggling with the standard qwerty keyboard.
A non-resident Indian (NRI) who moved to Orlando, Florida, from Karnataka way back in 1989 was trying to teach his children their mother tongue without much success, but not because of a lack of effort. A simple query from his son stumped him. “Dad, do you not have a keyboard for this language?”
That one question sent Guru Prasad, and engineer and entrepreneur, on a nine-year quest. He did his research while running his own simulator business catering to the defence and aerospace industry in the US. His goal was to develop a keyboard that could type any Indic language. And that was easier said than done.
We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Qwerty keyboard – it’s on our PCs and our smartphones – and has the English alphabet containing 26 letters laid out in a manner that many say defies logic. “We realised that we are missing a user interface for our languages. That is why we did not have an Indic keyboard,” says Guru Prasad.
Indic languages, also known as the Indo-Aryan family of languages, are predominantly spoken and written across southern and south-eastern Asia. The one common factor is that they are based on the Brahmi script, which is believed to be one of the earliest writing systems developed in India. All modern Indian scripts and several hundred others found in southern and south-eastern are derived from Brahmi.
This became the starting point for Guru Prasad.
Overcoming the limitations of English
Guru Prasad explains the fundamental difference between English and Indian languages. “English is a spelling-based language whereas ours are based on phonetics (sounds),” he says. This means words in Indian languages are pronounced in a particular manner (and as they are written) which is not the case with English. Further, the commonly used qwerty keyboard cannot accommodate more than the standard 26 characters while Indian languages, with their rich repository of nuanced sounds, go much beyond that limit.
It was this lack of a proper interface led Guru Prasad to develop a unique keyboard where all the letters (sounds) used in Indian languages are clearly represented. Along with a few others, he then came out with a keyboard that can be applied any language based on the Brahmi script. They formed nine groups for the keyboard and developed it based on Unicode. (Unicode is a computing industry standard that encodes and represents text in most of the world’s languages in a consistent manner.)
The lack of a digital, keyboard-based interface, fears Guru Prasad, could see many Indian languages slip into oblivion. He cites the example of Tulu, a language predominantly spoken on the western coast along southern Karnataka and northeren Kerala.
“Tulu lost its script in a span of just 20 years between 1820 and 1840 due to printing press brought in by the missionaries from the West. The limitation on these machines was the lack of space for more characters,” he explains.
One keyboard for many languages
Today, Guru Prasad’s keyboard can be used to type any Indic language. The format is very simple - the main button on the keyboard allows you to choose your mother tongue. The same keyboard, at the press of a button, can be converted to any Indic language of the user’s choice.
While the product was ready to be prototyped, Guru Prasad had been traveling extensively between India and the US. A naturalised American citizen, he realised he needed to be in India to develop this further. After some coaxing, he says, his wife gave him the “visa”, as he describes it, to move to India and realise his dream of coming out with a Indic keyboard.
In October 2017, he finally set up his company, Ka-Naada Phonetics Private Limited, in Bengaluru. The Indic keyboard is currently available in the seven-inch format and priced at Rs 1900. Next on the anvil is a 10-inch keyboard, besides a regular Qwerty-sized one.
As these keyboards are USB-enabled, they can fit into any device, be it a conventional computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet.
Ka-Naada is currently focused on making the user interface better by working on the ergonomics, design elements, feather touch, etc. Ka-Naada’s keyboard is available in 16 languages and can also be used in other countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal for their local dialects as these languages too are rooted in Brahmi.
Now with the Indic keyboard, it has brought back to life Tulu language. “We can revive a lot of our ancient manuscripts because now there is an appropriate medium to type,” he says with pride.
Several challenges ahead
However, this dream of coming out with an Indic keyboard was not without significant challenges. What surprised Guru Prasad was that people were just not receptive to their first square keyboard developed three years ago. They were used to a rectangular one and wanted that familiarity of layout. This meant going back to drawing board and doing it all over again. Ka-Naada also faced challenges in getting partners in India.
Guru Prasad passionately believes that an Indic keyboard can solve many a problem arising due to the digital divide.
“A large section of our society is forced to use the English keyboard. We have found that first-time users have no difficulty at all in using our Indic keyboard,” he says.
He hopes that with an Indic keyboard now available commercially, it would create a significant number of jobs, with non-English speakers being more comfortable using their mother tongue. The firm is also working with various governments to popularise these keyboards. There are only 150 million English speakers in India, which means the potential is huge.
(Need more) outside support
Ka-Naada has received financial assistance of Rs 25 lakh from the Karnataka government and up to Rs 15 lakh from the Centre as design assistance via the Indian Institute of Science (IISC). Guru Prasad himself has invested a significant amount into the venture.
For him, this endeavour is a leap from a personal passion to a business venture, and he knows there are significant roadblocks ahead. It is also an attempt to give back something to the country with the made-in-India tag.
His commitment to this venture is unwaering. As he puts it, “I have given up my job in the US and my family is there too. I have taken a lot of risks and have to take it to next level.”