E-Urdu: How one man’s plea for Nastaleeq was heard by Apple

Published: October 16, 2014
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Mudassir Azeemi says implementing Nastaleeq on the iOS will not be as difficult as it seems. PHOTO: MUDASSIR AZEEMI

Mudassir Azeemi says implementing Nastaleeq on the iOS will not be as difficult as it seems. PHOTO: MUDASSIR AZEEMI

KARACHI: Apple implemented the Urdu language keyboard across mobile devices in its iOS 8 update in mid-September. But persistence of a few Urdu speakers has now forced the IT giant to consider adopting the native typeface of Urdu language, Nastaleeq, along with the current Naskh font.

The Cupertino-based company had launched iOS 8 on September 17 in what was termed their biggest software update to date, boasting a whole host of features for those using modern Apple mobile devices. Hidden among those upgrades was the implementation of the Urdu keyboard across the system. This enables users of Apple’s popular iPhone, iTouch and iPad devices to type in Urdu while using texts, email, social media and other interaction. This functionality was previously available only through language-specific apps such as Urdu Writer.

The downside for some in this new feature, though, is that it follows the Naskh typeface derived from Arabic Unicode, rather than Nastaleeq. This prompted the creator of Urdu Writer, Mudassir Azeemi, to start a social media campaign. In writing a letter, emailing and tweeting to the CEO of Apple CEO, Tim Cook, Azeemi urged, explained, even pleaded about how easy it would be to implement the Nastaleeq typeface for the Urdu keyboard in iOS 8.

The effort paid part dividend when on October 13, Azeemi got a phone call from Cook’s representatives. Azeemi was initially fretting whether there are lawyers on the other end with a cease and desist notice over his campaign. Instead, the representative assured him that Apple will consider implementing the typeface.

The road thus far

Azeemi, a Pakistani who works out of San Francisco, says the roots of his campaign germinated well before his email to Cook on October 5, and subsequent snail-mail on October 8.

“When my daughter was growing up, I saw that she was learning alphabet through YouTube,” the app and user experience designer tells The Express Tribune. Hoping that his child could use technology to learn about her heritage and the Urdu language, Azeemi started work on building an app about Urdu.

“We started wondering if we can implement it on iOS. We then designed an entire keyboard for Urdu Writer in 2010.”

Urdu Writer met with great success as it allowed people to type in Urdu and share their writing through email, SMS, Facebook and Twitter. Most importantly, Urdu Writer allowed users to access the Nastaleeq font.

Why Nastaleeq?

Nastaleeq is a Perso-Arabic script. It is the preferred writing script for Persian Kashmiri and Punjabi – languages which contributed in the creation of Urdu.

“We asked around and a lot of people said that they could not read Naskh,” Azeemi says before explaining that readability of Urdu is better in Nastaleeq rather than in other members of the font family, including the widely implemented Naskh, or the lesser used Kufic font.

This was echoed by Ahsan Saeed, who divides time as an Urdu localisation moderator for Twitter and his day job at a digital agency. “People used to tell me that Twitter should have the Nastaleeq font.”

Saeed says that his own mother, too used to the Nastaleeq font, can’t read Urdu posts on Facebook or Twitter because they are in the Naskh typeface, but can read Urdu newspapers in the Nastaleeq font online.

“I raised it [implementing Nastaleeq on Twitter] with my community manager, who is an Iranian and familiar with the Nastaleeq font, and he agreed to forward the query to the engineers.”

Slow adoption of Urdu online

One of the reasons why Urdu keyboard has been adopted so late and why Nastaleeq does not feature on any major social media platform or technology company’s radar, is the low usage of the language online. The other reason is the technological barrier in its adoption owing to lack of support for the font by operating systems and devices.

Twitter, which introduced Urdu as a language on its site in 2012, opted against implementing Nastaleeq, owing to low usage of the language and lack of support by operating systems on one its main platforms – mobile devices.

“Urdu tweet tradition has grown in the past two years [when the language was implemented on Twitter],” says Saeed, but concedes it has remained slow.

“Slow adoption,” he explains, is because social media is new as well. “Users have to first understand what the platform is and then move to use it in Urdu.”

Hence usage of platforms is primarily in English. Urdu language Express News commands a following of over four million on Facebook out of a total 14 million accounts from Pakistan. On Twitter, Express News has over 250,000 followers out of two million accounts.

“We have to keep reminding users about the use of Urdu,” says Saeed.

But Azeemi points out that there is no lack of Urdu users. His app Urdu Writer – which will not receive an iOS 8 makeover – was downloaded over 165,000 times all over the world, primarily in the UK, US and Middle East. “If the Urdu keyboard (in Naskh) has been enabled system-wide on iOS, it means it must have spiked on their [Apple’s] radar.”

“If Hebrew can be incorporated in the keyboard with few users, why not Nastaleeq when there are so many users across the world?”

A case of not how many, but who

The lack of support for Urdu by tech giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft has been the main stumbling block for spread of the language, and Nastaleeq’s users have had to rely on third party solutions such as InPage.

“Apple has only now implemented the Urdu-Naskh keyboard, but Android OS, which has far more users especially in countries like Pakistan, has not. Individual device manufacturers may have implemented a Naskh based keyboard, but not Android,” laments Saeed who worked to translate the keyboard on Twitter for mobile, but never got a green light for the Android app owing to little support by the OS.

This is one of the reasons why Azeemi, a graduate of Karachi University, says the first step in greater adoption of Nastaleeq must involve targeting giants like Apple who build their own unicode for fonts. With iOS now on board, the hope is that the remaining technology companies including Google and Microsoft would follow suit in not only implementing the Urdu keyboard across their systems, but eventually the Nastaleeq font as well.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Rida Khan
    Oct 16, 2014 - 10:28AM

    Great work!!

    Recommend

  • Omer Ahmed Bangash
    Oct 16, 2014 - 10:29AM

    So, what happens when it comes to display other local languages like Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi Kashmiri etc, & Arabic as well; when it comes to using Nastaleeq throughout the system.
    Only if, you got Nastaleeq for Urdu & Naskh for rest of those language with same script, but different character caps.
    There are fonts which are applicable to all language, very suitable for mobile interface; most of them are Naskh. like Nafees Web Naskh, BBC Nassem, Asiatype & many more. I haven’t seen a single Nastaleeq font, which has such a capacity.

    Recommend

  • slave
    Oct 16, 2014 - 10:42AM

    good….now some pakistani should also tell apple to bring back the option to freely switch between 2g/EDGE, 3G and 4G LTE. because ios8 forces us to either use 3g or 4g currently, which wasn’t the case in ios7.

    Recommend

  • Ahsan
    Oct 16, 2014 - 12:21PM

    I always found it difficult to read urdu in Arabic font. The nastaliq font is much more readable. Great work done by Azeemi sb. Hope other tech giants like twitter and google also adopt the Nastaliq font.

    Recommend

  • True Karachiwala
    Oct 16, 2014 - 12:51PM

    Every one involved is commendable. Urdu will live on and flourish, INSHA ALLAH

    Recommend

  • Wahab
    Oct 16, 2014 - 1:52PM

    I have updated my iphone to ios8 but still there is no urdu keyhoard!!! Is it requiring some other thing too?? Please someone tell me!!!

    Recommend

  • C. Yusuf Mumtaz
    Oct 16, 2014 - 2:26PM

    Microsoft Office has implemented the Urdu Typesetting font, which prints the Urdu font in Nastaliq. I enjoy it very much. I would like to see them implement it in Windows Phone (or a native Urdu keyboard and language for that matter).

    Recommend

  • Oct 16, 2014 - 3:19PM

    good thank you

    Recommend

  • Oct 16, 2014 - 7:16PM

    @Wahab:

    How to enable Urdu Keyboard in iOS 8?

    Go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard
    Select “Urdu” from the list of Keyboards, voila!

    https://medium.com/@mmudassir/from-urdu-writer-to-ios8-urdu-keyboard-d011f496e3b1

    Recommend

  • Aamir Farooq
    Oct 16, 2014 - 7:34PM

    I’m fully supporter For Urdu language
    We Need to support All features like
    Add Urdu language in mobile
    Speak Recognaizaition in Urdu
    Siri work with urdu voice with urdu Accent
    Urdu Keyboard with original urdu language Font called
    Jameel Noori Nastaleeq Font
    Apple need to be Change this Font Arabic Unicode it’s not are language Font

    Recommend

  • Sal
    Oct 16, 2014 - 9:27PM

    How will a small mobile device maintain a database of Ligatures and remember the key combination that appropriately picks up the proper Nastaleeq character ligature ? For instance, a Noon and Gaaf combination with the addition of another character will not only jump up and down the character Bounds but will also generate a million tracking, concatenation, and Kerning issues.

    But maybe a dedicated app will ! who knows ?

    Recommend

  • Oct 16, 2014 - 11:17PM

    @Sal:

    It is possible, and doable, if you have an iPhone, I would recommend to try the idea I wrote in that article:

    https://medium.com/@mmudassir/nastleeq-and-ios-8-love-story-bit-broken-7cc2311fc784

    Recommend

  • Mir
    Oct 17, 2014 - 6:50AM

    To the esteemed author,

    You claim that Persian Kashmiri and Punjabi contributed to the creation of Urdu! Where did you get this from? It is well known that Urdu evolved in North India during the Sultanate era, within the camps of the standing armies of Delhi. It evolved out of the local vernacular of the time known as from Khari boli, with elements of Persian (spoken in the court), Arabic, and Turkish mixed in.

    This attempt to use a write up on a new iOS feature to distort the history of the language was a nice try it but will fail to mislead the educated readers.

    Recommend

  • True Karachiwala
    Oct 17, 2014 - 10:50AM

    @Mir: rightly pointed out and clarified.

    Recommend

  • Qamar Kazmi
    Oct 17, 2014 - 6:48PM

    This is excellent. Thank you, Mudassir Azeemi sahib. While I don’t own any Apple products, I have admired Apple’s leadership and innovation over the years. I have two questions, if someone can help answer:

    At one point, I had heard there is a Microsoft Urdu Word Processor called Urdu Maher (?) that has Nastaleeq capability. Can one install a Nastaleeq font in MS Word?
    I understand that InPage Urdu is the standard these days for publishing in Pakistan. However, I need the ability of using numbering (as in Numbering and Bullets in MS Word) and InPage does not have it. I found that out quite late and now I have a whole book that has been composed in it but don’t have that ability which is critical to that particular book. Is there a way to save Inpage Urdu document into another software (with Nastaleeq) and have the numbering ability?

    Thanks.

    Recommend

  • Oct 17, 2014 - 9:10PM

    @Mir:
    Mir Sahab, focus here is Nastaleeq font adaption. However your points are accurate. Why don’t we work together and create a portal where we can churn out the facts of Urdu origin? It is not originated from the invading forces. Actually the Urdu born in the courtyard of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and at that time it was known as Hindavi.

    Let’s create a wiki or update the Wikipedia with detail that how Urdu originated. I have a book written in 1930ish. We can use it as a reference. Plus there was a detail history of Hazrat Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia where there is a detail about Urdu origin and Amir Khusro bits.

    Let’s chat?

    However the campaign was once again for Nastaleeq, let’s keep out focus on the prize ;)

    History can be adjusted accurately if we all work from a neutral perspective!!!

    Thank you

    Mudassir
    @mmudassir

    Recommend

  • Firoz Hashmi
    Oct 20, 2014 - 12:27PM

    Nice Invention.

    Recommend

  • Oct 26, 2014 - 10:55PM

    I like it

    Recommend

  • malik
    Oct 30, 2014 - 7:09PM

    This Android app does the job perfectly with the Urdu-Naskh font…..

    Works well for me, but I am not sure if this works with all android 4.4 phones….

    Give this a shot…

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.appsambi.typeinurdu

    Recommend

  • Alina
    Dec 11, 2014 - 1:37PM

    Well done Mudassir! Proud of you.

    It is just a pity that it was actually our government’s duty to make this happen with Apple that one individual conscientious Pakistani did.

    Recommend

  • Wamiq
    Feb 21, 2015 - 12:25PM

    @C. Yusuf Mumtaz:
    Windows Phone already has the Urdu Typesetting font preinstalled from Microsoft. If you visit some English Wikipedia pages on a Windows Phone, you can see the Urdu text in Nastaliq without doing anything on your phone. E.g. if you visit en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urdu on your Windows Phone, you can see Urdu text in Nastaliq throughout the article.Recommend

  • Wamiq
    Feb 21, 2015 - 12:41PM

    @Qamar Kazmi:
    Microsoft has supported Urdu Nastaliq in all of its recent products. Windows 8/8.1, Windows Phone 8/8.1 and Office 2013 come with Microsoft Urdu typesetting font preinstalled. If you have an older version of Office, you can type Nastaliq in Office by changing your keyboard to Urdu and installing some suitable Nastaliq font. You can find detailed instructions from this website: http://urdu.ca/Recommend

  • Wamiq
    Feb 21, 2015 - 12:43PM

    @Mudassir Azeemi:
    Are you the real Mudassir Azeemi mentioned in the article? I want some help from you. :)Recommend

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