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The W3C on Web Standards

Around the World Wide Web in Eighty Minutes

· Published in Typography & Web Fonts · 6 Comments

A note from the editors: Each month, a new author from the W3C will keep you informed on what we're up to—and how you can be a part of it. This month's column is from Richard Ishida, Internationalization Activity Lead at the W3C. — Ian Jacobs, Head of W3C Communications.

The year is 2013. London-based web designer Phileas Fogg IV has teamed up with his internationalization friend Jean Passepartout III to circumnavigate the globe. Unlike their famous forebears, Fogg and Passepartout will not be bounding around the planet in hot air balloons and other risky contraptions. Rather, they plan to explore the world’s typographic conventions from the comfort of Fogg’s Soho loft. Adventurous? Yes! Risky? Not so much! The only tunnel they might discover is carpal; the only port, 80; the only mysterious cable received, the one for Fogg’s router. At least that is what they thought, before discovering complexities that would baffle the intrepid of any age. And so they set off on their first investigation…

1. IN WHICH MR. FOGG AND PARTY LEARN THAT MUCH PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE

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Fogg and Passepartout decide to travel around the world in the opposite direction to their more famous namesakes, and set out for the United States of America.

Not much to report here. Even though Spanish is on the ascendancy, there is little difference from the typographic approaches that they are used to back in London.

But wait, what’s this?

As they navigate their way through the American typographic scene, they come across some very strange lettering.

“Ah! This is Cherokee,” exclaims Passepartout, “and it’s an interesting case!”

“Until quite recently, the Cherokee cultural heritage was dwindling because they had to use poor transliterations of Cherokee on computers, and had no standard, widely-compatible fonts. But after Cherokee syllables were added to Unicode, people developed Cherokee fonts and keyboards for a variety of devices–in particular, mobile devices. Now that people of the younger generation are able to talk to each other in Cherokee on Twitter, Facebook, and the web, the future looks much brighter.

“There are many languages around the world in a similar situation,” continues Passepartout, “and many other people need support for native typographic conventions that have long traditions, but can be very different from what we usually see in London.”

“I’ve heard of Unicode” muses Fogg, “though I can’t say I know much about it in detail.”

“Unicode,” explains Passepartout, “is a single set of characters that already covers pretty much all of the world’s writing needs. It not only enables you to write in Cherokee, or Cyrillic, or Cham, or Chakma, or even Cuneiform(!), but it allows you to mix languages in any of those scripts on the same page in a way that was almost impossible 25 years ago.”

Passepartout goes on to explain that a recent survey by Google of 6.5 billion web pages shows that well over 60 percent of web pages around the world use Unicode’s UTF-8 character encoding–and if you include the pages using only ASCII characters (which are a subset of UTF-8), that figure rises to around 80 percent!

Unicode usage on web pages. (Mark Davis, Google Official Blog)

“Remarkable!” replies Phileas. “This is indeed progress! What can I do as a web designer?”

“Adopt Unicode, of course,” explains Passepartout. “If you’re not using it already for all your content, you should ask yourself why.”

“But how do I do that?” cuts in Fogg.

“It’s actually pretty simple,” replies Passepartout. “You need to be sure to declare the encoding of your page as UTF-8. But don’t forget that you need to actually save your files as UTF-8 too! Oh, and ensure that all your back-end scripts and server settings don’t mess up the Unicode content! Don’t worry, the W3C has some helpful material to guide you.”

<meta charset="utf-8"/>

A UTF-8 encoding declaration should appear at the beginning of every <head> element.

Passepartout adds, “Fonts and encoding declarations are important, but proper typography requires so much more. And so… westward ho… to… the East….”

2. IN WHICH PASSEPARTOUT EXPLAINS THAT COLUMNS ARE NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK IN EAST ASIA

Passing on from the Americas, Fogg and Passepartout point their browser toward Japan.

Here they find an abundance of strange looking characters, and marvel at the fact that the Japanese “alphabet” has thousands of characters in it, each of which is typically pronounced in two or three different ways, depending on the context. It takes children six years of schooling to learn enough ideographic characters to scrape by when reading a newspaper, and then there are also two large syllabic alphabets to learn, too.

“And if you read Chinese,” interjects Passepartout, “you have to learn thousands more characters than in Japan.”

“But how can they represent all that in a computer?” asks Fogg.

“Well,” says Passepartout, “with Unicode the number of characters is no problem. Later I’ll tell you about ingenious keyboards that let you choose the one character you need out of thousands while you are typing. However, children (and sometimes adults) get help to read the characters they aren’t familiar with through special annotations called ‘ruby’. These tell you how to pronounce the character they are associated with. They run alongside the base characters, without increasing line height, and have to wrap to the next line at the right place.”

Ruby annotations over ideographic text.

Passepartout goes on to explain that although you can already see ruby on the web, the W3C is currently in the process of redefining how ruby should be marked up for the HTML5 specification. People like the markup model, but there is a need for implementations if we’re to see it in the 5.0 version of HTML. Unfortunately, even for a large market like Japan, getting browser developers to implement these local requirements is often difficult, unless you have volunteers who are able to provide patches. And, by the way, the CSS Ruby styling specification still needs work, too. This will apply the necessary fine typographic control over the placement of ruby in relation to the base text. Basically, there’s a need for assistance to make these things happen.

But Fogg has become distracted.

“Look at this! The lines of text flow vertically, rather than horizontally. Is that possible on the web too?”

“It’s on its way,” answers Passepartout. “This and ruby were the top requirements arising from the recent ebooks workshop held in Tokyo. Printed novels are set vertically in Japanese. Developers of ebooks are unwilling to release readers unless they support vertical text, and so they have gone so far as to produce their own extensions while they wait for the W3C to finalize the finer details of how to do that in CSS. Once the CSS is ready, they’ll switch to the standard though.”

Passepartout goes on to show how vertical alignment of text also has dependencies on font technologies, but Fogg is particularly impressed when he is shown an example of vertical text in columns.

Horizontal columns in Japanese text.

“This is extraordinary!” he says, “Look at that term ‘Universal Character Set.’ The characters are oriented differently, but not only that, it shows that the columns run right to left instead of top to bottom! Life must be hell if you are an Asian content developer… And you need to say ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ where we say ‘left’ or ‘right.’ It must get confusing if you work on horizontal content too.”

“Well, most things should happen automatically once you set the CSS text direction to vertical,” Passepartout reassures him. “However, one thing for content developers around the world to look out for is that the CSS Working Group is going to be encouraging designers and developers to use the logical terms ‘start’ and ‘end,’ rather than fixed terms like ‘left’ and ‘right,’ for new content. That will make it much easier to design content that can be adapted, or to design styles that can be ported quickly to various languages.”

“It’s particularly useful for scripts like Arabic and Hebrew, where the basic text direction is right to left. But let’s wait until we get there before discussing that.”

“The key thing is that you are now beginning to see that there are some aspects of what you do that can have an impact when your web content or page design reaches an audience that lives beyond your back yard.”

“Yes, I see.” says Fogg. “I’d like to see some more of those things. Where to next?”

Stay tuned for future Tales of Web Typography

  1. IN WHICH PHILEAS FOGG AND PASSEPARTOUT VISIT THE FORM FIELDS OF SUMATRA
  2. IN WHICH PASSEPARTOUT ASTOUNDS PHILEAS FOGG WITH NEWS ABOUT BURMESE RENDERING
  3. IN WHICH PHILEAS FOGG EXAMINES THE SCRIPT OF THE HINDOO
  4. IN WHICH PHILEAS FOGG CAN’T DECIDE WHETHER HE IS COMING OR GOING
  5. SHOWING WHAT HAPPENED ON THE WAY THROUGH EUROPE
  6. IN WHICH IT IS SHOWN THAT PHILEAS FOGG GAINED MUCH BY HIS TOUR AROUND THE WORLD, BUT MUCH IS YET TO BE DONE

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