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Gurmukhi via Unicode
By Amrinder Singh

Ever since the invention of the computers, English has been the predominant language. All software programs and Operating Systems such as Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, and Unix/Linux are in English. Punjabi writers could not take advantage of the Computer because of fonts. Since the 1990s, the boom in sales Personal Computers allowed the average person to start and learn how to use a computer. By that time, Punjabis had already begun to experiment with Gurmukhi font development. Gurmukhi fonts such Anandpursahib, Sukhmani, and fonts by Dr. Kulbir Singh Thind started to appear. All these fonts till now have been using the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) which is a standard adopted by International Organization for Standards (ISO).

The standards at that time adopted encoding from various languages. But due to the limitations of computer memory and storage and 7 bit (later 8 bit) structure, support for many languages was not included. So fonts at that time had to be developed using the ASCII standard. Since there was no standard for Gurmukhi script, font developers created their fonts without any standard keyboard layout. Another problem with using fonts that are without a standard is that users needed to download and install the fonts. Font conversion was very time consuming when done by hand. To solve the limitations of 255 characters in ASCII and add support for all languages, Unicode was developed.

Unicode was developed to specify a code for every single character needed by every human language. Instead of 8 bit scheme which only allowed for (28 - 1) 255 characters, Unicode allows for 1114112 (216 + 220) code points. 65,535 of the code points are reserved for characters and 1,048,576 code points are reserved for Unicode Transformation Format (UTF). This allows for applications that are not designed for Unicode to allow users to use Unicode. Gurmukhi and English characters now have separate code, where as in ASCII, Gurmukhi and English characters shared the code points. Unicode allows for every single character to have its own unique code. This gives huge advantages to other languages and allows the users to use those languages just about every where they can use English. For this reasons Unicode has been becoming very popular in the recent years.

Unicode allows users to communicate in writing without having to worry about fonts just like in English. For example, when I was writing this article, I did not worry about choosing which font to write in. I knew that other users will be able to read this article without any problems. But if I was writing an article in Gurmukhi using ASCII fonts, I would have to decide which font the readers would have installed on their machines. But when using a Unicode Gurmukhi font, users would not have to decide which to font to use.

With these advantages, users can write e-mails directly in Gurmukhi. With ASCII, a user would have to type the message in a word processor such as Microsoft Word and then attach it to the e-mail message. But with Unicode, a user can type Gurmukhi in the e-mail message just like English with the push of two buttons on the keyboard. (Alt and Shift by default). There is no need for attachments now. Users can now even name files and folders on their computers in Gurmukhi and other languages. Also, scanning software used to convert printed documents into a word processor comes in hundreds of languages but it is very disappointing to know that it does not include Gurmukhi support because we did not have a standard for Gurmukhi font. But now there is hope that software companies that make Optical Character Recognition software will support Gurmukhi Unicode fonts are script based so they do not break up when used on a website like traditional Gurmukhi ASCII fonts. In Unicode, characters that take up very little space, are given a space holder (Note the dotted circle). Web developers now don't have to worry about the visitors to the website having fonts instilled. As being a web developer myself, I know this can be an issue even when using font embedding due to Internet browser compatibly.

If we look in the Fonts folder in our computers, we have hundreds of English fonts. No matter which English font a user chooses, they can type the letter "A" using the same keyboard key. Now with the help of Unicode, keyboard layouts for Gurmukhi are standardized by the Unicode Consortium. Font developers can now create virtually unlimited number of fonts without any keyboard layout issues as long as they comply the Unicode standard for Gurmukhi. Click on this link for the standard

Now with Unicode fonts, only the look of the characters in the font will change, not the keyboard layout.

Now let's discuss about the characters in the Unicode standard. I have been reading letters posted by viewers on this website. Some of the users have asked questions about the characters and the keyboard layout.

Unicode Consortium has given code points to Gurmukhi script. Some of the characters that are used to type Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji are not assigned. We can request the Unicode Consortium to assign these characters and add those to the standard chart.

Another concern for most users is typing in a Unicode font. Since the characters use a new keyboard layout, it is difficult to type in Unicode. It is difficult to master that layout because the keys are everywhere. Not only do you have to look at the Shift state but also Control Alt state. But again this problem is very easy to solve. Microsoft allows a user to create their own keyboard layout without altering the actual code. It just acts as an interpreter between the actual code and the user defined code.

Font Test: New Punjabi Pages

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