Many people know that Wipro brought out the first standards-compliant keyboard that bears the Indian National Rupee (INR) symbol; few know, however, that the company had begun researching into the way the symbol would be used even before the government announced the symbol.

Sharing this information, Dr Sudarshan Murthy, General Manager, Applied Research, Wipro Ltd, says, “The Government of India announced the symbol on July 15, 2010, but we had begun work on ways of using the symbol around July 3 itself.” Dr Murthy says that since it was known that the INR would get a symbol, researchers like him had to work on getting it used irrespective of what the symbol was. And Wipro's speed meant that it could play a big role in the process — Dr Murthy is all smiles as he points out, “The proposal that Wipro made is now the standard.”

The Department of Information Technology (DIT) standard for the keyboard usage of the symbol came out on August 31, 2010, and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) approved it on January 31, 2011. Wipro made its keyboard available for sale on February 15, 2011.

Why such a huge delay? Asked about this, Dr Murthy says that while the rupee symbol keyboard is the most visible part of the process, a whole lot of work had to be done in the background. With technology being so widely used today, the challenge was to integrate the symbol into the ICT (information and communications technology) environment so that people could benefit from the symbol by using it actively. This meant that the symbol should be usable even in an SMS, Dr Murthy points out.

Discussing the larger picture, he says that contrary to popular perception, this was an international issue and not an Indian one. “You should be able to use this symbol in a spreadsheet program in India, mail it to somebody in the US, and he should be able to send it to a network printer in Singapore.” And if this person decides to give the printout to somebody who, in turn, scans it and imports the text into a word processor, it should still recognise the rupee symbol. As can be seen, various devices in many parts of the world have to recognise the symbol.

Realising the magnitude of the problem, Dr Murthy says he discussed the issue with government officials. After this, a meeting was called and various choices were considered. Finally, seven policy suggestions were made for the adoption and proliferation of the symbol. Ultimately, the decision was made — one would use the ‘4' key on the line of keys under the function keys along with the alt key to the right of the space bar to use the rupee symbol.

One might ask — why only the alt key to the right of the space bar? Why not the left? After all, one can get the ‘$' symbol by pressing the ‘4' key with either the right or the left shift, right? Explaining why using the alt key to the left of the space bar along with the ‘4' key would not input the rupee symbol, Dr Murthy says the keyboard comprises three different ‘levels' of keys. Characters such as 1, 5, F, A, and others are level 1; keys such as shift and control are level 2 keys and the key to the right of the space bar, called the ‘AltGr key' is the only level 3 key in the standard keyboard.

At the hardware level, the AltGr key produces a scan code that is different from the one produced by the left alt key and so this key is used as a secondary modifier. So, press ‘4' and you get ‘4'; press shift and 4 and you get the $ symbol; press the AltGr or the right alt key along with 4, you get the rupee symbol. And if you press the left alt key and the 4 key, you get...well, nothing.

If you feel that this standard is crazy, remember that the keyboard standards committee had to work with compatibility in mind. They also had to consider user inputs and reject them if necessary. Explaining this, Dr Murthy says, “We conducted a survey to find out what symbol people wanted to use to input the rupee symbol, but we didn't tell them that Wipro was conducting the survey. Many people felt that Alt-R would be the best way to input the rupee symbol.” But the committee felt that the ‘4' key — thanks to its long association with the $ currency symbol — would be a better bet. “Also, after using the rupee symbol, you would want to enter a number, so placing this symbol along with a number has its merits,” points out Dr Murthy, highlighting the amount of effort that has to go into something that we would perceive to be the ‘simple' task of adding a symbol to a keyboard.

(This article was published on March 6, 2011)
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