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NRSI: Computers & Writing Systems

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Short URL: http://scripts.sil.org/UTConvertQ7

When to Convert to Unicode

Is software going to force Unicode on you?

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

Some of the newest software that is coming out will only support Unicode. At that point, you’re forced into a hard choice: continue to use your old software with your old special character tools, or switch to Unicode to take advantage of the power of the newer programs.

Actually, to be precise, it may still be possible to fool some of the newer programs into working with older special character systems, but this is a risky business. At any point, a new version of the program may come out that will no longer be fooled. At that point, things will start going wrong, like characters showing up as little boxes, or lines breaking in the middle of words, or being changed to other characters when you copy-and-past them to other programs, or keyboards no longer working. Now that many programs update themselves automatically over the internet, things may break even when you aren’t aware that anything has changed.

You may decide that “the old is good” and decide to keep on working with the same software as you currently use so you don’t have to convert your data to Unicode. This is a reasonable option for a few years, but as time goes on it gets more and more risky. If your computer hardware breaks down and can’t be fixed, you may have to upgrade to a new computer that won’t run your old programs. As time goes on, there will be fewer and fewer people who know the old software and can help you with it. Your data may even become stranded in an old file format so that you can’t print it or do anything to it. So, at some point you will probably be forced to change. If you are almost done with your work on a language, you may manage to avoid changing—someone else can convert your data to Unicode for archiving and help other people work with your data using newer software. But, then again, these sorts of problems have a way of creeping up and ambushing us at awkward times. Don’t just ignore that possibility and pretend it can’t happen to you. Make a conscious choice about accepting the risks involved and have a backup plan for converting to Unicode in a hurry if that becomes necessary.

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