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Looking at early microcomputers, all of them have support for something resembling ASCII, occasionally a few letters with accents and things were included also. And occasionally another alphabet such as Russian or Armenian was squeezed in.

But the Arabic alphabet is a bit more complicated. It's written (mostly) right-to-left, and as far as I can tell it needs many diacritics to be legible. What was the first computer to support this alphabet?

Computers with user-definable graphics, like the ZX Spectrum or the TI-99/4a, qualify if you can show a software title which uses them to render a sequence of bytes as Arabic text. I am not only considering the Arabic language here but any language which can be written with Arabic letters (eg. Urdu, Turkmen etc.)

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    Are you also considering Hebrew, which is also written right to left but uses a different alphabet than Arabic? – Greg Hewgill Mar 27 '17 at 21:09
  • Are you asking about the full script or a subset? What if the subset is to the script as RISC is to x86? – wizzwizz4 Mar 27 '17 at 21:41
  • All your examples are microcomputers; are you interested in larger systems too? – Stephen Kitt Mar 28 '17 at 5:12
  • @StephenKitt I am interested in larger systems too – Wilson Mar 28 '17 at 7:40
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    @wizzwizz4 What kind of subset do you mean? I reckon if it's "good enough" to write some language, that qualifies. – Wilson Mar 28 '17 at 7:41
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It was most probably not the first computer to support Arabic, but the Sinclair ZX Spectrum apparently was sold in an extremely rare Arabic version. That ROM is available for download and use in a Spectrum emulator.

The screenshot (taken from the Fuse emulator running the Arabic ROM) shows the ZX Spectrum's copyright screen.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum Arabic Startup Screen

The Arabic ROM did not simply use the Spectrum's UDG capability, but provided native Arabic support including right-to-left writing and support for diacritics (I don't know Arabic, so can't say much about the actual level of support here). Even ZX Basic programs are written right-to-left and list in Arabic glyphs.

The computer apparently had a switch to select between the original and the Arabic ROM.

The following screenshot shows the "Horizons" introductory program running on an Arabic ROM. The upper part of the screen is a bitmap and thus not using the Arabic font, but the "Stop the tape and then press any key" message on the lower part of the screen does. (I used the "standard English" Horizons, so that message might look weird...). Also, the character coordinates seem to have been turned around, because in the Horizons program, the screen is flashing the concepts all in the wrong places.

And in case you wonder that the screen writing in Arabic apparently is still left-to-right: I presume the Horizons program doesn't use the standard ROM character output routine... PRINT in ZX-Basic really prints right-to-left. I checked.

enter image description here

  • While I cannot read Arabic, it seems to me that there are no diacritics on that screen, those are basic letters, which can be represented with not that many glyphs (28 letters in up to 4 positional variants, but many letters have fewer variants, specially if it's acceptable to have somewhat uglier typography [e.g. the difference between ṭā’s isolated and initial, and final and medial forms, is that in initial and medial forms a line extend to ligate nicely with the next letter]; plus probably a couple extra glyphs). See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_alphabet#Table_of_basic_letters – ninjalj Mar 28 '17 at 17:14
  • So, all in all, if nice typography isn't of paramount importance, legacy systems are up to the task, as demonstrated by this screenshot, and by CP864. – ninjalj Mar 28 '17 at 17:15
  • You may be right about your theory that the Horizons doesn't use the standard ROM routines for printing. That grey screen up at the top seems to render the letters' positional variants correctly, but that screen from Horizons looks rather horrid, in particular the letters س and ش – Wilson Mar 28 '17 at 17:49
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    @Wilson There's only so much glyph that you can squeeze into an 8x8 pixel grid... – tofro Mar 28 '17 at 18:25
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The Apple II had rudimentary Arabic versions, similar to the later Apple II j-plus. I recall Woz saying at a talk he gave that he was personally involved in adding Arabic support.

Here's an Apple II version, and here's an Apple II europlus version, and here's the "VINTROPEDIA - Vintage Computer and Retro Console Price Guide 2009" giving a date of 1979 for the europlus version - which sounds about right.

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As far as I know the earliest ones were:

  • Thomson TO7. The machine has a different keyboard with the original ROM but an arabic cartridge (which was Microsoft basic)

  • Elan 64 / Enterprise 64. Different keyboard and ROM.

  • Some of the MSX models manufactured by Casio. Different keyboard and ROM.

I wasn't aware of the ZX Spectrum mentioned above.

  • Actually, all of your listed models were launched after the ZX Spectrum. It might be hard or even impossible to find out, however, when support for Arabic was actually available. That was not typically a feature built in from day 1. – tofro Mar 29 '17 at 20:46
  • Yes, the Arabic versions probably popped up later, but I have absolutely no clue about the timeline. – Thomas Mar 29 '17 at 22:45
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The Xerox Star 8010 (1981) featured Arabic typography in its promotional photographs:

Xerox Star 8010 showing Arabic typography

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    Please quote the contents of the tweet in your answer (with > blockquote syntax), or at least provide a better link text than the plain URL (with [link](https://example.com) syntax). – wizzwizz4 Jan 26 at 20:14
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Well, while this is not an answer according to the requested Mirocomputer criteria, Arabic sript was already present in 7 bit age, standardized as ASMO-449 / IR-089 in 1982, but used that way already several years before. It's based on 7 bit ASCII.

There have been mainframe terminals using it's precursor form as early as 1976.

Another very early 7 bit variant used in terminals was based on a German transliteration from 1935, which replaced all Arabic letters, except 5, by single Roman letters, so only 5 symbols from ASCII had to be sacrificed to bring it norm conform into 7 bit code space. Since this was (still is) the correct (German) transliteration for Arabic, it had the a great side effect, that displaying the same data using basic ASCII displayed (almost) readable Arabic text (using Roman letters) - well, except these 5 symbols that is - which could be fixed by search & replace anyway.

With DOS 4.0 IBM also introduced special Arabic DOS version using Codepage 864, which brings this definitely back to microcomputer mainstream.

Later Windows 1256 and corresponding ISO 8859-6 solved the 7 bit issue by moving Arabic into the 8 bit code space and enabling many more computers to be used with this script.

Well, and then came Unicode :))

  • That's a very clever hack making the data human readable in two different representations – slebetman Jan 28 at 4:00

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