Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Towards Simplified Egyptian (March 2012)

I first mentioned Simplified Egyptian on this blog back in 2010, Simplified Egyptian: A brief Introduction, although the idea goes back several years before then.

The basis of Simplified Egyptian is to embed standard rules inside a font or functional equivalent (typically OpenType font) to instruct font rendering to combine hieroglyphs into predefined groups (much like the ligature ‘e’ with ‘acute’ normally combines into é e-acute).

So, why is it taking so long to implement? The first prerequisite to making Simplified Egyptian available in useful form was adding Egyptian Hieroglyphs to the Unicode standard (initiated 2006, finally released with Unicode 5.2 in October 2009). However a standard is necessary but not sufficient, popular Operating Systems (e.g. Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, and Android) need to adequately support the standard. It is also essential that tools such as internet browsers, word processors and so on support standards compliant behaviour. Progress has been slow on all these fronts, disappointingly so.

Two positive developments during the last few months.

1. OpenType now (almost) formally recognizes the ‘egyp’ tag for fonts containing Egyptian Hieroglyphs (see http://www.microsoft.com/typography/otspec/scripttags.htm updated October 4, 2011 to bring the standard up to date, matching Unicode developments in recent years).
2. Firefox now recognizes ligatures in Egyptian fonts (not sure exactly when this happened but my test font was first seen to work correctly in Firefox 10 on Windows). Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari haven’t seen any progress in the 18 months since I published Egyptian Hieroglyphs on the Web (October 2010).

One minor negative two weeks ago. The Windows 8 consumer preview really ought to have worked since Unicode 6.x support is part of the design. However my Egyptian tests failed for Internet Explorer and several other programs and software interfaces. Hopefully those bugs will be shaken out before release and similar progress will be seen in OS X, iOS and Android before the end of 2012.

Looking at the trend it seems likely that by this time next year there will be enough pieces of the puzzle coming together to enable some useful Simplified Egyptian use scenarios on a variety of fully up to date systems with up to date software. Realistically, however, for most people 'up to date' is unlikely. Android phones are often stuck with obsolete versions of Android. Windows computers last for ages nowadays yet the cost of upgrading a version of Windows and Microsoft Office is normally prohibitively high for most people and organizations. As a rough estimate, it is going to take 3+ years before 25% of PCs (including tablets, excluding phones) are Simplified Egyptian capable.

Moving forward. Despite the apparently slow opportunities for uptake it seems worth starting the ball rolling now. Last year I created a list of about 1200 candidate rules for an implementation of Simplified Egyptian to test against the dictionary database and some sample documents. Further work is needed but I hope to provide a test implementation in InScribeX Web along with a Simplified Egyptian font this year, initially using a draft specification for the rules. IXW can be used to make sample web pages (using a downloadable version of the font) which we now know will be readable in Firefox at least. This work to be followed by ample time for comment and feedback on the specification from all, including experts in the subject. Timescales depend on when I can find some spare time (unless anyone knows of any funding!) but if all goes well, by around this time next year there will be a useable Simplified Egyptian system with at least some PC systems and a few standard apps that can use it. Then, as people upgrade systems and developers upgrade apps SE can reach out to an increasing audience.

Unfortunately a slow process with pitfalls e.g. web pages that only look correct on modern browsers unless we see a change in the habits of Apple, Google, Microsoft and other PC and device manufacturers. Most people working with hieroglyphs in software will continue to mainly use MdC-based solutions for some years to come on desktop/laptop systems. A topic I'll return to shortly.