Unicode support doesn’t mean your application is internationalized


Over the years, I’ve helped many organizations internationalize their software products. One of the most common misunderstandings is how Unicode will help their product. Customers sometimes mistakenly believe that Unicode support will be sufficient to internationalize their products. Sometimes they believe that Unicode “support” is a single, yes-no, on-off ability, when instead Unicode support is typically implemented in various stages and levels.

Unicode is a character encoding standard. It’s a big standard, with lots of nuances. Your products can implement “Unicode support” in many ways. The result is that those products will be able to manipulate, process, store, and perhaps even display the world’s scripts in a variety of ways BUT not usually in all ways. Your product’s ability to support Unicode is not a binary ability; instead, you should understand that products can have “Unicode support” in a variety of levels. In the most simple case, your product might only store and retrieve Unicode characters correctly. At a more sophisticated level, your product may be able to sort, search, or display Unicode characters. Again, Unicode “support” in a product cannot be evaluated by a single check-box or yes-no answer. Typically, products support Unicode in some ways but not in others.

Implementing even the most sophisticated levels of Unicode support doesn’t mean your product is internationalized. Internationalization is the process of preparing a software code base to be easily localized. Internationalization creates a product that has no particular bias towards a single culture or language. That product can be localized for a specific culture. Unicode support can be a key component of an internationalization effort, but it is only one component. Like Unicode support, your internationalization support will have different levels of sophistication and ability.

To summarize, products can support Unicode in a variety of ways. Supporting Unicode does not usually mean that your product has the ability to perform every possible function on Unicode characters. Instead, “support” usually means that you can do some things with Unicode but probably not others. Additionally, supporting Unicode isn’t the only step to internationalize your products. Unicode is only one step, an important step. Internationalization is the process of creating a product that is easier to localize, one that has cultural biases removed so that a specific culture or locale can be supported more easily after localization. You might use Unicode as a step in your internationalization efforts, but Unicode itself doesn’t create an internationalized product.

Contact me or leave a comment if you have questions about how Unicode can help your product. If I can help, I will. If I can’t, I probably know someone who can.

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