Global developers talk the same language

Software makers like Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp., which are building applications and software development tools for an increasingly diverse pool of worldwide developers, gathered in

San Jose, Calif.,

last week to discuss the latest advances surrounding a technology called Unicode. The technology allows developers to make “culturally sensitive” products.

Creating user interfaces for software and Web applications that are familiar to computer users in different countries and cultures was the basis for the 19th International Unicode Conference, which continues through Friday with technical discussions and work groups.

Unicode is a standard encoding format used to make text in Web and software applications readable internationally. The standard works by assigning a unique number to every character in the 24 languages it supports. Corresponding letters, in English and Russian for instance, will share the same unique number. As a result, when a developer creates an English-language Web site with data encoded in the Unicode format it could be viewed in Russian by a user who sets his Web browser settings to show characters in that language.

Microsoft has taken that concept one step further as it develops its Internet initiative .Net, said Kathleen Carey, international programming manager for the .Net Framework team at Microsoft. .Net is an Internet project aimed at allowing users to access Web-based services and other data on various computing devices. The developers’ platform called the .Net Framework will allow programmers to make Web-based applications that are “culturally sensitive,” Carey said during a presentation.

For instance, when an application that displays English-language characters in the user interface is translated into another language, it will also change the format in which certain information is displayed. Content such as dates, currency and other numbers will change based on the language it appears in. The number “12,000” written in English will appear as “12.000” in languages that follow that style. Currency figures in U.S. dollars can be converted into a corresponding currency.

The .Net Framework will also include “baked-in” support for different calendaring systems, Carey said.

With related technology, Microsoft has also incorporated into its Windows operating system the ability to “mirror” the interface of an application, said Russ Rolfe, a developer with Microsoft’s platform group. For languages that read right to left, such as Hebrew and Arabic, Microsoft’s Windows XP has the ability to display text to match that format.

Microsoft is not alone in its efforts to incorporate Unicode and other technologies that make its software customized for different regions of the world. The Unicode standard has become a ubiquitous encoding format for developers. The programming language Java is built 100 percent in Unicode, said Ricardo Erb, a software consultant who helps translate products into different languages. That means any application written in Java can be translated without additional programming from English to any of the languages that the data format supports. Unicode is also the default encoding format for XML (Extensible Markup Language) and HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language).

This is an important feature for companies and organizations that do business around the world, said Helena Shih Chapman, a senior programmer with IBM Corp. who attended the event. “A multinational company may have different applications in house at offices around the world and they need to talk to each other somehow,” she said.

The need for multilingual software has spawned an entire market of developer tools and consulting services. The worldwide market for localizing software in different languages and cultures has reached about US$10 billion annually, said Erb, also president of the newly formed Professional Association of Localization.

Companies promoting their wares at the show included Sun Microsystems Inc., which next month will release the beta version of StarOffice 6.0 in four Asian languages. Sun has localized StarOffice to support Japanese, Korean, Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese.

The Oracle9i database also features support for internationalization. While not a new feature to Oracle’s database software, the latest release includes additional support for Unicode, the company said.

As developers globally met this week at the biannual International Unicode Conference, the event was slimmed down significantly due to Tuesday’s horrific terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Many of the scheduled speakers and attendees were booked on flights scheduled to take off late Tuesday and Wednesday and never made it to San Jose, Calif., said conference organizer Barbara Jarzyna. All U.S. airports have been closed since Tuesday.

Tim Bray, the co-creator of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and founder of Vancouver-based Systems Inc., was scheduled to give the keynote address here Wednesday but was unable to attend due to the grounding of all commercial airlines.

Conference attendees also wondered Wednesday how they will get home from the event. Three showgoers from Boston and Washington, D.C. were among a list of people who planned to rent a car and drive across the country.

“There are no flights out of San Jose, and some people really need to get home,” Jarzyna said.

More about the 19th International Unicode Conference can be found online at