How Unicode relates to prior standards such as ASCII and EBCDIC

The Unicode standard is advantageous to other standards. It can reduce the complexity of handling character data in globalized applications.

Evolving standards based on limited platforms

The representation of character data in modern computer systems can be fairly complicated, depending on the needs of your globalized application. One of the reasons for this complexity is that the methods for handling this data have evolved from early methods that served less complicated environments and hardware platforms.

In fact, many early decisions about how to encode characters on a system were guided by the functional requirements of specific devices, such as the early Telex (TTY) terminals and punch card technologies. For example, the Delete character (with an ASCII value of x'7F') was required in order to punch out all of the holes in a column of a punch card to signify that the column should be ignored. The storage capacities of these early computing systems placed additional limitations on system and application designers.

The character encoding schemes that have grown out of these early systems were built on this historical foundation:

  • The ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) character set uses 7-bit units, with a trivial encoding designed for 7-bit bytes. It is the most important character set in use today, despite its limitation to very few characters, because its design is the foundation for most modern character sets. ASCII provides only 128 numeric values, and 33 of those are reserved for special functions.
  • The EBCDIC (Extended Binary-Coded Decimal Interchange Code) character set and a number of associated character sets, designed by IBM for its mainframes, uses 8-bit bytes. It was developed at a similar time as ASCII, and shares the same set of base characters and has other similar properties. Unlike ASCII, the Latin letters are not combined in two blocks for upper- and lower-case. Instead, the letters are arranged so that their hexadecimal values have second digits of 1 through 9 (another punch card-friendly design).

Historical simplicity creates modern complexity

The physical and functional limitations of the early character sets gave way to rapidly expanding hardware and functional capabilities. Character representation on computing systems became less dependent on hardware; instead, software designers used the existing encoding schemes to accommodate the needs of an increasingly global community of computer users.

Character sets for many characters

The most common encodings (character encoding schemes) use a single byte per character, and they are often called single-byte character sets (SBCS). They are all limited to 256 characters. Because of this, none of them can even cover all of the accented letters for the Western European languages. Consequently, many different such encodings were created over time to fulfill the needs of different user communities. The most widely used SBCS encoding today, after ASCII, is ISO-8859-1. It is an 8-bit superset of ASCII and provides most of the characters necessary for Western Europe.

However, East Asian writing systems needed a way to store over 10 000 characters, and so double-byte character sets (DBCS) were developed to provide enough space for the thousands of ideographic characters in East Asian writing systems. Here, the encoding is still byte-based, but each two bytes together represent a single character.

Even in East Asia, text contains letters from small alphabets like Latin or Katakana. These are represented more efficiently with single bytes. Multi-byte character sets (MBCS) provide for this by using a variable number of bytes per character, which distinguishes them from the DBCS encodings. MBCSs are often compatible with ASCII; that is, the Latin letters are represented in such encodings with the same bytes that ASCII uses. Some less often used characters may be encoded using three or even four bytes.

An important feature of MBCSs is that they have byte value ranges that are dedicated for lead bytes and trail bytes. Special ranges for lead bytes, the first bytes in multibyte sequences, make it possible to decide how many bytes belong together to encode a single character. Traditional MBCS encodings are designed so that it is easy to go forwards through a stream of bytes and read characters. However, it is often complicated and very dependent on the properties of the encoding to go backwards in text: going backwards, it is often hard to find out which variable number of bytes represents a single character, and sometimes it is necessary to go forward from the beginning of the text to do this.

Examples of commonly used MBCS encodings are Shift-JIS and EUC-JP (for Japanese), with up to 2 or 3 bytes per character.

Stateful encodings

Some encodings are stateful; they have bytes or byte sequences that switch the meanings of the following bytes. Simple encodings, like mixed-byte EBCDIC, use Shift-In and Shift-Out control characters (bytes) to switch between two states. Sometimes, the bytes after a Shift-In are interpreted as a certain SBCS encoding, and the bytes after a Shift-Out as a certain DBCS encoding. This is very different from an MBCS encoding where the bytes for each character indicate the length of the byte sequence.

The most common stateful encoding is ISO 2022 and its language-specific variations. It uses Escape sequences (byte sequences starting with an ASCII Escape character, byte value 27) to switch between many different embedded encodings. It can also announce encodings that are to be used with special shifting characters in the embedded byte stream. Language-specific variants like ISO-2022-JP limit the set of embeddable encodings and specify only a small set of acceptable Escape sequences for them.

Such encodings are very powerful for data exchange but hard to use in an application. Their flexibility allows you to embed many other encodings, but direct use in programs and conversions to and from other encodings are complicated. For direct use, a program has to keep track not only of the current position in the text, but also of the state--which embeddable encoding is currently active--or must be able to determine the state for a position from considerable context. For conversions to other encodings, converting software might need to have mappings for many embeddable encodings, and for conversions from other encodings, special code must figure out which embeddable encoding to choose for each character.

Why Unicode?

Hundreds of encodings have been developed, each for small groups of languages and special purposes. As a result, the interpretation of text, input, sorting, display, and storage depends on the knowledge of all the different types of character sets and their encodings. Programs are written to either handle one single encoding at a time and switch between them, or to convert between external and internal encodings.

Part of the problem is that there is no single, authoritative source of precise definitions of many of the encodings and their names. Transferring of text from one machine to another one often causes some loss of information. Also, if a program has the code and the data to perform conversion between a significant subset of traditional encodings, then it carries several megabytes of data around.

Unicode provides a single character set that covers the languages of the world, and a small number of machine-friendly encoding forms and schemes to fit the needs of existing applications and protocols. It is designed for best interoperability with both ASCII and ISO-8859-1, the most widely used character sets, to make it easier for Unicode to be used in applications and protocols.

Unicode is in use today, and it is the preferred character set for the Internet, especially for HTML and XML. It is slowly being adopted for use in e-mail, too. Its most attractive property is that it covers all the characters of the world (with exceptions, which will be added in the future). Unicode makes it possible to access and manipulate characters by unique numbers (that is, their Unicode code points) and use older encodings only for input and output, if at all.