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NRSI: Computers & Writing Systems

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You are here: Encoding > Conversion
Short URL: http://scripts.sil.org/UTConvertQ12

When to Convert to Unicode

Are you willing and able to “straddle the fence”?

Albert Bickford, Jim Brase and Lorna Priest, 2007-05-11

This question also relates to both ends of the window of opportunity. If you have the technical know-how or technical support to work with more than one special character system at the same time, then the window of opportunity expands considerably. You have the option to start using Unicode on some of your data sooner, and you can postpone the point when you must leave legacy encodings behind. So, if you can answer “yes” to this question, you will have more flexibility as to when to convert. Unfortunately, however, not everyone can answer “yes”, and there are enough potential problems to this approach that the majority of users and situations should probably answer “no”.

Here are some possible scenarios:

  • You use Unicode on one computer and the older system on another computer. Either you don’t move data back and forth between the computers, or you learn how to convert the data back and forth as needed.
  • Some software allows you to store the data on the hard disk in the older system, but will automatically convert it to Unicode when it reads it into the program, then converts it back to the older system when you save the file.
  • You use different special character systems in different files on the same computer, and convert back and forth as needed.

All of these can be problematic. It can be easy to mix the two systems up. For example, you might start working on a file using the wrong keyboard and font, and introduce a mixture of Unicode and non-Unicode data in the same file. You may want to copy-and-paste data from one file to another, but this won’t work if one uses Unicode and the other doesn’t. If you have to convert data to and from Unicode, you have to learn how to use the conversion tools and you can spend a lot of time converting data instead of getting real work done.

Still, for some users who understand the issues and can use the necessary software, it can be convenient to convert to Unicode in stages over a period of time, rather than all at once. You’ll have to decide if you are one of those, and whether the advantages of maintaining two systems outweigh the costs.

Back to When to Convert to Unicode.


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