Making WordPerfect "Perfect"

A Conversation with Yitna Firdyiwek

Ato Yitna Firdyiwek is currently an Instructional Technology Advisor at the University of Virginia where he is also working on his doctorate in education and instructional technology. He has recently left Northern Virginia Community College after 7 years.

Ato Yitna's first successful project occurred in late 1988 or early 1989 with the creation of fonts to use with ChiWriter, a technical word processor with a sophisticated font editor. He used this program with the Ethiopic fonts to publish a small family newsletter. Yitna is better known in the field of Ethiopic computing for his company GohaTibeb and the WordPerfect 5.1 add-on of the same name. In this article we learn what lead Ato Yitna, a linguist, to enter the troubled waters of Ethiopic programming and come out with a product still in popular use nearly 10 years later.

Impetus for Personal Involvement

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

When I came out of college with a Creative Writing MA from Brown, I had no reason to believe my interests would ever get me even close to a computer. Even after I went back to school to work on my Linguistics degree and did borrow an Osborne to write my papers, the computer was not on my radar screen. It was just a glorified typewriter. It is interesting that my desire to buy one and work with it came upon me only after I had entertained the thought of making that darn thing write in Amharic. Suddenly, I was hooked. It is also interesting to remember how I would see the same reaction in other Ethiopians, who had even less reason than I to be interested in computing. As soon as I would even mention what I was doing, the computer would make sense. A lot of it was sheer giddiness at the idea, but it fascinated everyone. It was as if the connection made the computer real. For me it was like re-discovering the Ethiopian writing system.

My first computer was an Apple IIc. I tried all sorts of font generating programs on it--Gutenberg, Scribe, Fontrix. I even tried my hand at Basic--a far cry from the days of computer-agnosis. But, I never bought the Mac, never got hooked on Apple. My first real break came with ChiWriter--probably the best DOS based word processor with pixel-level control; you could copy vertical portions of the screen! The only drawback for Ethiopic was that it didn't have a good keyboard mapping system. We used the F keys. I was able to cobble something with Superkey to make the system serviceable, and I did end up with a typical Ethiopian typewriter keyboard with the shift-keys on the right. The system worked well enough for me to produce a family newsletter.

I was giving copies of the fonts out to people, however, when someone who claimed to have ``invented'' the Ethiopic characters on the ChiWriter keyboard before me began to harass me to make me stop working on my project. I did not want to be responsible for any acrimony in our community, but acquiescing to his demands would, I thought, set very bad precedence for me and other developers, so I refused to accept his argument. The other developers I knew at that time were Mulugeta Kebede who was doing excellent work on the Mac, Ato Abate who didn't develop anything himself, but was excitedly promoting the excellent software from Duke University, and Fesseha Atlaw, whose company Dashen had already been in the business of selling a DOS based Ethiopic word processing system. The five of us came together, I believe in the summer of 1989, and had a demonstration of our wares in a Church in Adams Morgan, DC.

Soon after, I did stop work on ChiWriter and started to work with Word Perfect 5.1. It was the word processor of choice at that time.

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

(partially answered above)

What other barriers were there to your work?

The harasser above, definitely.

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

Although I worked alone on both the ChiWriter and WordPerfect 5.1 add-ons, I did begin a group called GohaTibeb Associates, using the name of the WordPerfect version which we intended to sell along with other services.

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?

I was very deeply involved. I never saw my projects as ever being complete. I must confess that I used to think that creating fidel digital fonts would be a nice retirement hobby.

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

Here is the story about selling GohaTibeb. First, about the name--my father thought it up while he was visiting us in DC. I had always wanted to sell GohaTibeb as shareware, asking for minimal contributions. But the GohaTibeb Association decided against it. The decision was right. There really was no market there. One option had been to go with ``dongles''--those hardware pieces that lock the parallel port. Thank god we didn't go that far. We had a handful of buyers, but finally gave it up when the Association broke up. Eventually, I put the whole thing in the public domain. We never really considered anyone competition.

Editor's Note:- The HP SoftFonts used in printing Goha from WordPerfect were later converted into the GFF Ge'ezFree Zemen font and put back into the public domain as the first freely available Unicode compliant Ethiopic font.

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

The most significant response I got is from a friend, who reported to me that GohaTibeb is enjoying widespread use in Addis Abeba.

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?

I cannot say I am active in Ethiopics computing anymore. I keep up with the issues, but am not active. I am getting interested in the text digitizing projects, however, and that may qualify as computing. Others who are more technically proficient than I are producing the tools--email, html, etc.

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?

These activities have kept me in touch with my culture, country, and people.

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

Yes, I would do it over again, and I can't imagine any other way it would have happened. It was all contextual, we worked in the context of developments in computer technology.

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

The context for Ethiopic computing today is not only technological developments, but political ones as well. Judging from reactions to various types of technological proposals, it is clear that large scale proposals would be hard to support. Standardization processes, thus, though needed desperately, cannot, in my opinion, be viewed as feasible. On the other hand, smaller projects such as the production of individual multimedia packages seem to be more successful. Even tools such as word processing packages would have a hard time gaining acceptance compared to say a CD full of graphics. My own project is to push for the digitizing and placing in public domain of all Amharic and Ethiopic texts without copyright restrictions. I think this is a worthwhile project both culturally and commercially.

Vital Statistics

For the latest on what Yitna is up to, and to read his resume, visit Yitna's Homepage