From DOS to Dashen

A Conversation with Fesseha Atlaw

Ato Fesseha Atlaw is currently an Engineering Manager for the Microwave Technology Division of the Hewlett Packard Company in California. He has worked for Hewlett Packard for the last 15 years as a manufacturing development engineer, and an engineering Scientist, in Corporate Engineering functions.

After a year at Addis Ababa University Ato Fesseha received undergraduate and graduate degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics at the University of Nebraska.

Ato Fesseha is best known in the field of Ethiopic computing for providing the genesis for the concept of computerizing the Ethiopian alphabet and the founding of the Dashen Engineering Company. Ato Fesseha, through Dashen Engineering, has been recognized as the producer of the first usable Ethiopic word processor. In our dialogue with Fesseha we find out what lead him to create the first Ethiopic word processor and what obstacles he was up against in the earliest days of the personal computer.

Impetus for Personal Involvement

What prompted you to start your first project? What was the problem you wanted to solve?

I am an engineer by profession but I am a also writer at heart. I wrote and published a book when I was 12. When I was 15 I had written a play which got national attention when it was shown in Ethiopia's ``Hager Fiker'' Theater Hall, the nation's largest then. When I came to US to study engineering, my writing was put on the back burner.

When I first got my professional job, I desperately wanted an Amharic type writer to continue my passion for writing. However, I found out it was impossible to even smuggle a type writer during Mengistu's regime. I contacted Olivetti and Olympia, which were the two manufacturers of Amharic typewriters but was not successful. I was not left with no choice but to develop an computerized Ethiopic word processor. Even though the concept and the experimentation started much earlier, I was not ready to make public demonstration until 1985. During and shortly after the demonstration, I was surprised that there were lots of people who wanted to buy or have a copy. In 1986 I provided the first copy of The Dashen Engineering word processor to The Ethiopian Outreach ministry in York Pennsylvania, which started to publish books and evangelical tracts almost immediately. Since then, I was able to provide the software to many many individuals and institutions. In most cases, as donations or at a nominal fee. Some who wanted to helped my effort paid full price for the software with out hesitation. Those kinds of gestures have been a tremendous personal encouragement and provided the backbone for my strong determination and conviction.

So in 1985 you gave your first demonstration. But when did your work really begin? When did you first see Ethiopic on a computer screen?

I made a crude set of fonts in early 1980, but was not usable at all. It was strictly a "font design" and I was not able to associate it with files. I then made an investigation of Ethiopic hardware/software solutions in 1981; I was considering to develop an application on Atari 800 computers. In 1983 the investigation changed focus on an HP 150 PC, which we at HP were hoping to be "standard PC". When 8086 PC architecture became standard I started to develop an Ethiopic application on an ``XT'' machine. Then in 1985 I developed a full fledged word processor on an XT machine and printing on an 8-pin dot matrix printer. I still have the sample.

What were the limitations of computers at that time that affected your work? How did you overcome them?

There were many limitations: The main problem, when I first started, was that there was no standard hardware architecture. The decision to select the hardware for development of Ethiopic was an issue. The choices were Commodore, ATARI, Apple II, and HP 150. Then font designing software was not available. The 256 ASCII limitation was also a hindrance and many Ethiopic scholars insisted that I must include all the 350+ characters. The width of some characters made it impossible to use 8bit wide pixels with out compromising the quality and the resolution of the fonts.

What other barriers were there to your work?

Another major issue was selecting the typing format, i.e. whether to use a transliteration format matching the sounds to the Latin keyboard rendering method or designing to make it easier for those that are used to Ethiopic/Amharic type writer. I selected the later as a primary method. However I accommodated other needs by doing custom mapping of keys by special request.

Did you work alone or with a team? Who else would you credit for the completion of your work?

I worked by myself on the development of the fonts and incorporating it to a word processor. I used The Gamma Production's MLS word Processor and modified it to be able to accommodate Ethiopic.

How deeply involved would you become in your work? Was it a casual interest or obsession? Did it have an effect on your relationships with other people? How important was it to you to complete your first project?

Once I started and I got the attention/interest from others and also being the ``pioneer'' gave me the additional boost and provided the drive. I used to spend many hours on this project and being single then, helped. I remained single till the end of the project. I gave an interview on the VOA in 87 that really established my effort as a significant contribution in the development of the Ethiopic languages. I believed I was contributing to my country in a meaningful and tangible way. I received numerous letters, post cards and encouragement from all four corners of the world, and that helped me to continue with my determination. Ethiopians were very supportive and sincerely happy about the development.

Who did you view as your competition? Did this factor into your work?

Since I never saw myself as a business man, I was never threatened by any competition. In fact I shared all I could with those that wanted information how to design fonts and other technical information. I provided free demo disks to all the potential competitors, some of whom have now established themselves as providers of Ethiopic software. I have provided advice and help to many Ethiopians who have since developed Ethiopic fonts for the market.

Describe the success of your first effort. Is there any significant response that you received that made it all worth while?

Yes, the many requests for interview from magazines and radio programs was a sure sign of a successes. Some of the actual interview included, Voice of America, write up on many Ethiopian magazines, interview on Radio Ethiopia, a demo at the Hilton Hotel ('89) Interview on Ethiopia TV (Which was later suppressed ) It was worth while to see my effort clearly recognized. Yet, I always emphasized to people not to lose the comparative insignificance of this effort when seen with other ``real'' major scientific breakthroughs or when compared what other things one can do to address the real ``life and death'' issues Ethiopia was facing then. I have disagreed and still disagree with some developers that we should not exaggerate the development process.

So the government was aware of your work then. Why would they suppress it? Was your interview done in Ethiopia? Did your work criminalize you in the view of Mengistu's government? How did your work change your your relationship with the ruling bodies?

Yes, the government then was aware of my activities. When I went to Addis in 1988, I gave an interview on Ethiopia Radio and my effort was described by the interviewer as the first Ethiopic computerization project. Then Government officials and party members were very interested to see and talk what I had. I was invited to different government offices to do a demonstration. Then, I was told that my public demonstration of my products and giving a copy to some offices has angered some party officials some of whom were in charge of the secret project of the Science and Technology (With the help of some Swedes). I was told the government had spent Over $2 million Birr on the project. The fact that I was a private individual developing an ``Ethiopic Computer'' on my own and made the ``first'' public demonstration was clearly not well received well by many with close ties with the government.

In fact I was told by some people I should leave the country ASAP. I did leave the country quickly, cutting my trip short. Before I left, I had given an extensive two-part Interview on ETV that was canceled. Within weeks of my departure, The Science and Technology Department announced a public demonstration of ``Amaharic computer'' which I understood had several glitches. However, The government newspapers and TV hailed it as ``spectacular'' (so I was told) In short, my project was a major embarrassment to the Mengistu government who had ordered his regime should be credited for the ``First Amharic Computer''.

Are there any meaningful events that happened in this time that you would like to mention? Favorite stories you would like to share?

I saw several hundreds of books and magazines published using my (Dashen Engineering's) software. Ethiopian Airlines was a major user at that time, using the software from all office communications to printing the ticket jackets and advertisements. I was personally gratified to see gospel tracts printed in millions using my software.

The Present

Are you still active in the area of computational Ethiopics? If you founded a company, how is it today? If you are no longer active in this area, can you tell why?

Currently I have a very busy and demanding work schedule. I travel extensively and also chair many industry-wide symposiums and forums non of which have any thing to do with software. That leaves me very little time for an effort in Ethiopic software development as before. Besides, I think there are at least 20 Ethiopic related software providers in the market and I believed my additional contribution wouldn't make that much of a difference.

However I have been active working with Unicode to help guide Ethiopic standard. I am consulted by Unicode subcommittees on issue of Ethiopics. In fact the first Ethiopc proposal was drafted by Dr. Joe Becker and myself back in the mid eighties.

How did you and Dr. Becker meet up? What were the issues then? How did the CSES and later proposals differ from your work with Becker? Can you describe your current efforts with Becker/Unicode?

I think it was in 86 or 87 I met Dr. Becker at Xerox Software Laboratories and did a demonstration of my software to him and his group. Xerox at that time had a contract to develop multi-lingual software for the US government. The current Unicode proposal as submitted by CSES was based on what Joe and I proposed. More recently I have been able to influence Unicode Committee in continuing to name the standard as Ethiopic rather than Geez or Amharic. Another person I have lots of respect for is: Yitna, he has been a help and a good sounding board at the early stages of my work. Another Ethiopian businessman, Fesseha Taye has been pushing for the development of Ethiopic Computers as early as 1983.

I must also add some thing here regarding most recent development on Ethiopic. The work that is being done by Daniel Yacob is commendable and has catapulted the development of Computational Ethiopics into much higher gear and caliber. I am so amazed by the personal efforts Daniel has put in in this regards and what he was able to achieve. Among the many of his works I admire are his work in cross standardization of the many software packages and his pioneering efforts in Ethiopic Web publishing.

On the other hand, I am irritated when I hear of certain individual who harass and accuse every Ethiopic software efforts with ``stealing his ideas'' which is totally baseless and with out merit. On the contrary there are many indications that he was the one who was stealing ideas from others. I guess, when one can't compete and runs out of ideas intimidation and false accusations are seem to come in handy. Having said that I want to make it clear that my conclusions and remarks do not steam from a personal grievance. I, or Dashen Engineering, were never a victim of any harassment or accusation.

In what way does your experience impacted your life today? How would your life be different now had you not ventured into the computer world?

I really don't know...I am glad I was able to contribute as a pioneer to this effort and I feel good that I gave some thing back to my people and motivated many others to be in the arena. I never set out to make this to be a full time venture nor have I left my regular job to do this. I am thankful to God that He has allowed me to do this.

If you had a choice to do it all over, would you? In hindsight what would you have done differently?

Yes, I would have done it all and not much differently. I had a good professional career that allowed me to subsidize the development from my own pocket and had the freedom to give it away to many needy students, teachers and pastors and Priests and non-profit organization. I had many ``thank you letters and testimonials'' I treasure.

What are the main challenges you see facing Ethiopics computing today?

Standardization of keyboarding is one major issue. We need to communicate with each other in Ethiopic with one standard. One should be able to to read a document regardless of whose software was used.

In what areas would you recommend developers to focus on (you may describe your own forthcoming projects)?

I recommend that developers focus in standardization of the rendering methods. And then work on an aggressive schedule to implement 16bit Unicode standard and to influence hardware and software makers to incorporate Ethiopic as a standard language.