Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Unicode 6.0 released: Let the challenge begin

Unicode 6.0.0 was released yesterday, October 12th 2010. This is a major update to Unicode - version 5.0 was released in 2006, followed by partial updates 5.1 (2008) and 5.2 (2009). Details are given at, also see the Unicode, Inc. press release Unicode 6.0: Support for Popular Symbols in Asia. The Unicode character repertoire reflects the ISO/IEC 10646:2010 standard for characters, Unicode itself adding much of the technical information needed for implementation of writing systems.

All of which gobbeldy-gook masks the fact that Unicode is a rather wonderful thing, not only a valuable technology but also a work of art and beauty that eclipses much that passes for establishment and celebrity art of modern times in my personal opinion. Our world continues a path towards English as the lingua franca for Planet Earth with a clear decline in the relevance of traditional languages. Yet at the same time the technology that may be seen by some as a threat can also be the saviour. Unicode is the keystone. It is marvellous fact that 5000 years of diverse writing systems can become assessible to all for the first time in history and Unicode has played a pivotal role in making this happen during its 20 year evolution.

A specification is only a starting point. The complete text of Unicode 6.0 is still being revised for publication next year. I recently drew attention to ISO/Unicode scripts missing in OpenType and have since been informed that work is now underway to catch up on the missing scripts. Nevertheless it can be expected that it will take months and years before computer software and digital content catches up.

A fun addition to Unicode is the set of ‘Popular Symbols in Asia’ mentioned above. Emoticons. Here are four examples:


I suspect Emoticons will be the popular motivator for timely support of Unicode 6.0 by the usual corporate suspects (Apple, Google, Microsoft etc.). Meanwhile expect your web browser to show ‘unknown character’ for GRINNING FACE WITH SMILING EYES etc. above.

Search engines. When I checked this morning, neither Bing nor Google search were indexing the Emoticons, I’ll keep my eyes open to report on who wins that particular race.

Internet browser support. Internet Explorer is currently the most popular Internet browser and version 9 is currently in Beta. The standards based approach of IE9 and the promise of improved compatibility among new releases of all browsers though HTML5 support etc. is a very positive direction for the web. Firefox is the second most popular. Then Safari and Chrome, both webkit based. The level of Unicode 6.0 support in the major IE9 and Firefox 4 releases (expected in the first half of next year) may serve as one interesting predictor of directions in the Browser wars.

There are no especially strong motivators in the traditional Desktop software arena but the situation is different for newer device formats. Which of Android, Windows Phone 7, or iOS will support Emoticons first? What about eReaders? Silverlight, Flash. Traditionally, support for new versions of Uncode has been slow in coming but seems like the rules are different now.

Should make for an interesting 2011.

Footnote. Much of the content of Unicode is there because a large number of individuals have freely given their time simply because of the worthwhile nature of the project. (I don’t understand why the big picture has not captured the imagination of the wealthy people of our world.) In particular I’d like to mention Michael Everson (who I worked with on Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Transliteration) who deserves recognition for his many years of effort and a dogged determination to take Unicode beyond the short term requirements of commercial and national interests.

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