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NRSI: Computers & Writing Systems

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Short URL: http://scripts.sil.org/UTConvertQ5

When to Convert to Unicode

Does available Unicode software meet your needs?

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

For Unicode to work, the operating system and other programs you use need to know how to use it correctly. This includes word processors, dictionary and interlinearizing tools, specialized translation editors, etc. More and more software is becoming available every year that supports Unicode, and the whole software industry is moving in this direction. However, you may need to do things that are still only possible in software that requires using older fonts and special character systems. So, before you switch to Unicode, you need to make sure that you’ll still be able to do everything that you want to with your data afterward.

To do so, make a list of the different programs that you currently use (or want to start using). What, specifically, do you use those programs for? Do any of them have any special capabilities that you need? Consider especially the following categories of software:

  • Word processing
  • Graphic editing (if you need to include text in your graphics)
  • Dictionaries and interlinear text
  • Specialized editors, e.g. for translation
  • Language survey, especially wordlist comparison
  • Desktop publishing (consider the full range of materials you want to produce, including both technical publications for scholars and vernacular materials for native speakers, whether you write them from scratch or adapt a “shell book” from some other language)
  • Output to printers, PDF, and web pages (HTML)
  • High-end publishing (although you probably won’t do the work, you need to know that your publisher has the necessary software)
  • Any other software that you use with minority language data.

In doing this inventory, you may find it helpful to use a spreadsheet like the one found here: Creating a Chart of Your Legacy Mapping.

Then, talk with someone who knows about these different categories of software to find out if there is Unicode-capable software that will do what you need. In deciding this, you need to consider the program itself, the operating system you are using, and the various options for fonts and keyboarding. Everything has to work together properly. Plus, some software supports Unicode only part-way; you’ll need to decide if that’s good enough. For details about different combinations of software and levels of Unicode support, see Software requirements for different levels of Unicode Support and Applications that provide an adequate level of support for SIL Unicode Roman fonts.

If the particular software you’re used to doesn’t support Unicode, look for some similar tool that will allow you to do the same things with Unicode. You’ll probably need to learn some new software when you convert to Unicode; sometimes new versions of familiar programs, and sometimes totally different programs. It takes some effort, but in the long run it will be worth it for most people.

Then, finally, you have to decide whether the newer Unicode software will work on your computer. You may need to upgrade to a new computer in order to run the newer software. Further, you need to think about all the computers you want to use. It is generally not a good idea to convert to Unicode on one computer but leave data in an older special character system on another computer—the potential of getting them mixed up is too great. (For more on this, see section Are you willing and able to “straddle the fence”?)

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