Ibm Teaches Netscape To Speak Hebrew
Posted on 19 May 2000
by Shoshannah Forbes (sforbes)
Rated 3.74 (Ratings: 1)
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IBM has released a version of Netscape 4.61 with BiDi support,enabling it to display Hebrew and Arabic web pages natively. This gives site developers cheaper and more advanced ways of creating sites in these languages.
Note- Since I work mainly with Hebrew web sites in the Hebrew market,this article will focus on the Hebrew side of things. In Arabic, matters are similar but not identical, with some additional problems unique to the Arabic language. I will love to hear comments from people who create Arabic language web sites.
What's so tough about Hebrew and Arabic?
Hebrew and Arabic are Bi-Directional languages (BiDi for short). This means thatwhile most of the text is written from right-to-left, some of the text (like numbers) is written from left to right.
Historically, since Netscape lacked any kind ofHebrew support, a cloggy workaround was developedwhich is called "Visual Hebrew". In general, this hadtwo parts:
On the Client side, the user needed toinstall a "Web View" font, which has a Westernencoding but includes Hebrew glyphs (and most of theweb view fonts are of very low quality).
On the Developer side, the developer musthave used certain techniques to have the pagereadable with the web view font:
- All Hebrew text must be reversed, while leaving any numbers or English text intact. For example, the sentence:
"I love Lucy and will meet with her on May 13"
"13 yaM no reh htiw teem lliw dna ycuL evol I"
- All line breaks must be hard coded into the HTML - you can not let the browser wrap long lines, since then the words will become out of order.
- All text must be manually aligned to the right - either with <p align="right"> or with tables.
- You cannot use lists (<ol> or <ul>), since they would be indented to the left instead of to the right.
- You cannot define font faces (either via CSS or via the <font> tag), since the Hebrew fonts on the system are logical fonts, and would not work with web pages.
- Some elements, like forms and page titles, the browser uses the OS directly to display, which means that they have to be written differently since the OS uses logical Hebrew (in logical Hebrew, the data is stored in the order it was entered, with a flag marking the directionality. When the data is processed and displayed the OS uses that flag to keep the correct direction of the element)
It is rather obvious that this visual method hashuge shortcomings, both on the user side (you can not copy and paste directly from web pages, and the browser search function is useless) and on the developer side (the extra cost of converting existing documents to the visual encoding, the limitations of design, and a need to add an extra Hebrew flipping function to any data that is going in or out of a database or being accepted from the user).
Support by the browsers
Microsoft, with version 3 of Internet Explorer,introduced a separate "Hebrew Enabled" version which uses the Unicode BiDi algorithm on Hebrew operating systems in order to display visually encoded web pages with any system font, and new support for "Logical" web pages, which work similar to the OS in allowing the Arthur's "flag" the directionality of elements, and render both Right-To-Left (RTL) and Left-To-Right (LTR) elements properly.
In version 5 of Internet Explorer, Microsoft wentone step further, allowing anyone, on any language of Windows to view Hebrew web pages - both logical and visual encoded (unfortunately, Mac IE5 has no Hebrew support). However, to be able to write in Hebrew (for example in web forms) the user still needs to have a Hebrew supporting OS (such as Windows 2000 with the Hebrew language pack installed).
The W3C's HTML 4spec also included the Unicode BiDi algorithm, introducing among others the DIR (direction) attribute that can go with any element to mark its directionality (RTL or LTR) and the ‎ (Left to Right Mark) and ‏ (Right to Left Mark) entities, which control the directionality of single characters.
All this time, the Netscape browser continued tolack any BiDi support whatsoever.
This caused an interesting chicken-and-eggproblem since, while about 80% of the users were using IE, web sites did not want to lose 20% of their users, so continued to use visual Hebrew encoding for their pages (Even the Microsoft Israel web site continued to use visual Hebrew for a surprisingly long time). Of course, the fact that most web pages where written visually and therefore viewable with Netscape, did not give end users any real reason to cry out for BiDi support in their browser. The problem of copying and pasting to and from web pages was solved by a booming market of utilities and applications that did just that.
Until last week.
Last week IBM releaseda version of Netscape 4.61 which they had licensed from Netscape and added BiDi support.
The IBM version, Netscape 4.61i, includes the fullCommunicator suite, but just the browser has BiDi support (unlike IE where the full package - the browser, FrontPage Express and Outlook Express support Hebrew).
The user interface has no Hebrew option (again,unlike IE which has a Hebrew interface available for users of localized Hebrew windows), but is finally aware of BiDi.
No more need to define a special web view font inorder to view Hebrew web pages - any Hebrew font installed on the system will do.
The fonts for Hebrew aredefined independently from fonts for other languages. The user can, for example, define Trebuchet MS (which has no Hebrew glyphs) as his/her default Latin1 font, and Arial Hebrew as his/her default Hebrew font.
There is a full new sectionin the preferences in order to define BiDi options like the default direction of a web page (LTR or RTL), the default user encoding etc.
Sites that have no encoding defined or haveincorrect encoding defined, can be viewed by switching to the correct character set from the new encoding menu. This time, it has all four Hebrew character sets:
- Hebrew logical (windows-1255)
- Hebrew implicit (ISO-8859-8I, similar but not identical to the one above)
- Hebrew visual
- Hebrew DOS (which is almost not in use)
Yes, logical Hebrew is finally here in Netscape.It still suffers some bugs, but it works well with most of my test pages.
I should note though, that the MSN Israel website (http://www.msn.co.il/homepage.asp) the only major web site written in logical Hebrew, caused Hebrew Netscape to crash consistently. Is it the web site? Is it something in logical Hebrew? Is it the browser? At the moment I haven't done enough testing yet to determined what it is.
One issue I did find, though, is that the UserAgent string of this browser is identical to any Netscape 4.6 international browser, therefore there is no way to tell from standard server logs how many of the Netscape visitors to a site actually have Hebrew support.
IBM apparently will be basing their work onHebrew support in the Mozilla project upon the work they have done here, but AOL/Netscape has of yet not said a word about their plans, if any, of including the BiDi support code in the upcoming Netscape 6.