Interview by Khaleej Times with Ali Al-Assam on 3/24/2017 by Nivriti Butalia

March 24, 2017


Back in the '80s, Dr Ali Al Assam worked on a secret project for the company. Ali says there are things Steve Jobs was spot on about, like fonts.

We were worried to start with. That we wouldn't be able to locate the man who developed four Arabic fonts still in the Apple library for Mac back in the day - in the '80s, when the Mac was unheard of, a top secret mission - let alone ambush the creator of Arabic typefaces (fonts?) Geeza, Kufi, Damascus, Baghdad - and ask him a couple of questions.

At an event called WAN IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishing) at a hotel by the water in Dubai last week, there must have been plenty of folks trying to nab him. Turned out, Dr Ali Al Assam (managing director of KnowledgeView Ltd) was easy enough to nab, and even willing to forego his coffee break to have a chat. And so, we headed to a round table with lunch places laid out. Moving aside cutlery and serviettes shaped like standing triangles, Dr Ali began telling the story of his association with Apple, the time he met Steve Jobs, the early days of graphics, and what to his mind, is the next big revolution in technology.
Can you talk about the beginning? How did your dealings with Apple start?

We developed Arabic for Apple 2 and Apple made a deal with us, by which they would distribute our Arabisation kit in the Middle East from 1982 to '84. In the Middle East, there was virtually no Arabic on computers. It was very early days - there were no graphics.

This was 1984?

Apple called me in. yes, I think, it was 1984. They said, we have a secret project in America. Will you come and help us with it? I was based in London then. So I went there. This is where I met Steve Jobs briefly. They had a secret project in another building. We didn't know how it looked. Apple had a Lisa (computer) that had a mouse and graphics. Steve Jobs and Apple borrowed the ideas from Xerox at the time. The Mac was a small box. But we had simulation on it. And they said, we'd like your help with doing fonts on this Mac in Arabic. In the Middle East, when Apple was releasing this Mac (we didn't know the name, we just knew something revolutionary was going to come). They were producing all the Eastern fonts. Apple was the first US manufacturer. (It was the) vision of Steve Jobs to say, look we are international, it has to be Kanji, Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and it all must look really beautiful... characters appeared in green, very ugly, very small, no graphics, on a black screen. That was a reality then. So, what he was producing was really revolutionary. Now you could see fantastic type on the screen - big small, really revolutionary.