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Unicode a universal Solution?

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In JDE we come accross many requirements when we need to take some extract from E1 or read some text/CSV files for an interface. This looks a pretty simple job but at times we need to do this it to support various languages(internationalization)..

Multi Lingual Keyboard TextThis is the time when need to use Flat file encodings.

As technicals we all know what is encoding. But let me just put some basic thought here.

This is from an article I read recently…

Back in the semi-olden days, when Unix was being invented and K&R were writing The C Programming Language, everything was very simple. EBCDIC was on its way out. The only characters that mattered were good old unaccented English letters, and we had a code for them called ASCII which was able to represent every character using a number between 32 and 127. Space was 32, the letter “A” was 65, etc. This could conveniently be stored in 7 bits. Most computers in those days were using 8-bit bytes, so not only could you store every possible ASCII character, but you had a whole bit to spare, which, if you were wicked, you could use for your own devious purposes: Codes below 32 were called unprintable.

They were used for control characters, like 7 which made your computer beep and 12 which caused the current page of paper to go flying out of the printer and a new one to be fed in.

And all was good, assuming you were an English speaker.

Because bytes have room for up to eight bits, lots of people got to thinking, “gosh, we can use the codes 128-255 for our own purposes.” The trouble was, lots of people had this idea at the same time, and they had their own ideas of what should go where in the space from 128 to 255. The IBM-PC had something that came to be known as the OEM character set which provided some accented characters for European languages and a bunch of line drawing characters… horizontal bars, vertical bars, horizontal bars with little dingle-dangles dangling off the right side, etc., and you could use these line drawing characters to make spiffy boxes and lines on the screen, which you can still see running on the 8088 computer at your dry cleaners’. In fact  as soon as people started buying PCs outside of America all kinds of different OEM character sets were dreamed up, which all used the top 128 characters for their own purposes. For example on some PCs the character code 130 would display as é, but on computers sold in Israel it was the Hebrew letter

Gimel (), so when Americans would send their résumés to Israel they would arrive as rsums. In many cases, such as Russian, there were lots of different ideas of what to do with the upper-128 characters, so you couldn’t even reliably interchange Russian documents.

Eventually this OEM free-for-all got codified in the ANSI standard. In the ANSI standard, everybody agreed on what to do below 128, which was pretty much the same as ASCII, but there were lots of different ways to handle the characters from 128 and on up, depending on where you lived. These different systems were called code pages. So for example in Israel DOS used a code page called 862, while Greek users used 737. They were the same below 128 but different from 128 up, where all the funny letters resided. The national versions of MS-DOS had dozens of these code pages, handling everything from English to Icelandic and they even had a few “multilingual” code pages that could do Esperanto and Galician on the same computer! Wow! But getting, say, Hebrew and Greek on the same computer was a complete impossibility unless you wrote your own custom program that displayed everything using bitmapped graphics, because Hebrew and Greek required different code pages with different interpretations of the high numbers.

Meanwhile, in Asia, even more crazy things were going on to take into account the fact that Asian alphabets have thousands of letters, which were never going to fit into 8 bits.

This was usually solved by the messy system called DBCS, the “double byte character set” in which some letters were stored in one byte and others took two. It was easy to move forward in a string, but dang near impossible to move backwards. Programmers were encouraged not to use s++ and s– to move backwards and forwards, but instead to call functions such as Windows’ AnsiNext and AnsiPrev which knew how to deal with the whole mess.

But still, most people just pretended that a byte was a character and a character was 8 bits and as long as you never moved a string from one computer to another, or spoke more than one language, it would sort of always work. But of course, as soon as the Internet happened, it became quite commonplace to move strings from one computer to another, and the whole mess came tumbling down. Luckily, Unicode had been invented.

Unicode

Unicode was a brave effort to create a single character set that included every reasonable writing system on the planet and some make-believe ones like Klingon, too. Some people are under the misconception that Unicode is simply a 16-bit code where each character takes 16 bits and therefore there are 65,536 possible characters. This is not, actually correct. It is the single most common myth about Unicode, so if you thought that, don’t feel bad.

In fact, Unicode has a different way of thinking about characters, and you have to understand the Unicode way of thinking of things or nothing will make sense.

Until now, we’ve assumed that a letter maps to some bits which you can store on disk or in memory:

A -> 0100 0001

In Unicode, a letter maps to something called a code point which is still just a theoretical concept. How that code point is represented in memory or on disk is a whole nuther story.

There is no real limit on the number of letters that Unicode can define and in fact they have gone beyond 65,536 so not every unicode letter can really be squeezed into two bytes, but that was a myth anyway.

OK, so say we have a string:

Hello

which, in Unicode, corresponds to these five code points:

U+0048 U+0065 U+006C U+006C U+006F

Just a bunch of code points. Numbers, really. We haven’t yet said anything about how to store this in memory or represent it in an email message.

Encoding

That’s where encodings come in.

The earliest idea for Unicode encoding, which led to the myth about the two bytes, was, hey, let’s just store those numbers in two bytes each. So Hello becomes

00 48 00 65 00 6C 00 6C 00 6F

Right? Not so fast! Couldn’t it also be:

48 00 65 00 6C 00 6C 00 6F 00 ?

Well, technically, yes, I do believe it could, and, in fact, early implementors wanted to be able to store their Unicode code points in high-endian or low-endian mode, whichever their particular CPU was fastest at, and lo, it was evening and it was morning and there were already two ways to store Unicode. So the people were forced to come up with the bizarre convention of storing a FE FF at the beginning of every Unicode string; this is called a Unicode Byte Order Mark and if you are swapping your high and low bytes it will look like a FF FE and the person reading your string will know that they have to swap every other byte. Phew. Not every Unicode string in the wild has a byte order mark at the beginning.

For a while it seemed like that might be good enough, but programmers were complaining. “Look at all those zeros!” they said, since they were Americans and they were looking at English text which rarely used code points above U+00FF. Also they were liberal hippies in California who wanted to conserve (sneer). If they were Texans they wouldn’t have minded guzzling twice the number of bytes. But those Californian wimps couldn’t bear the idea of doubling the amount of storage it took for strings, and anyway, there were already all these doggone documents out there using various ANSI and DBCS character sets and who’s going to convert them all? Moi? For this reason alone most people decided to ignore Unicode for several years and in the meantime things got worse.

Thus was invented the brilliant concept of UTF-8. UTF-8 was another system for storing your string of Unicode code points, those magic U+ numbers, in memory using 8 bit bytes.

In UTF-8, every code point from 0-127 is stored in a single byte. Only code points 128 and above are stored using 2, 3, in fact, up to 6 bytes.

The Single Most Important Fact About Encodings

If you completely forget everything I just explained, please remember one extremely important fact. It does not make sense to have a string without knowing what encoding it uses. You can no longer stick your head in the sand and pretend that “plain” text is ASCII.

There Ain’t No Such Thing As Plain Text.

If you have a string, in memory, in a file, or in an email message, you have to know what encoding it is in or you cannot interpret it or display it to users correctly.

Continued in Part II…

Published under the license.

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