Civil War Between Fonts

This post is about one of the civil wars in Myanmar. What ? Are you thinking about guns, bombs, and tanks?

Haha, not that civil war, this one is digital civil war. It is called Zawgyi vs Unicode civil war. A lot of foreigners who came to Myanmar to do tech business will ever hear about Zawgyi and Unicode.

For instance, when you want to develop a product for Myanmar people, the first question developer will ask you is which font will you use? unicode or zawgyi?

Seriously? What’s wrong with that? Is that kind of simplified vs traditional Chinese?

Nah! Not really…

The story started when local developers tried to digitalize local languages.Before that time, we used ASCII Myanmar fonts which are almost obsolete by now. Many groups tried to develop a standard Unicode system and a couple of encoding system called Unicode arose at that time.

Zawgyi was one of them. It’s a pseudo-Unicode. It was an unfinished product. Zawgyi developers intended to use zawgyi system to solve the most recent problem at that time, reading and writing Burmese words on the internet.People really enjoyed using zawgyi because it was superb and more practical than any other methods. Seeing the font correctly and typing easily is the most important issue for ordinary users.Zawgyi was indeed a lot useful for all of us. It involved in a major role to communicate between Burmese on the internet. I caught up in a time when we didn’t use Burmese font on the internet. We only relied on Burglish which are English words pronounced in Burmese words. However, zawgyi lacked some fundamental methods to apply in more advanced features such as sorting, searching and database. I cannot say about the very technical issue, so assume that their system was incomplete and faced many difficulties to upgrade to standard Unicode. On the other hand, one system, developed by a coalition team of developers, language experts, and others was accepted by Unicode consortium as a standard Burmese Unicode method.

But, many people were already familiar with zawgyi encoding system.Smartphones and internet had reached to Burmese people very quickly after 2010.People started using internet from the smartphones.If you bring your phone to nearby mobile service, almost every shops can make your phone to display zawgyi.However, popular OS such as Android and iOS hadn’t adopted Burmese Unicode yet.So far as I know, the first OS which can display Burmese Unicode correctly is Android 4.4 KitKat which was released in 2013. It was too late for Myanmar Unicode to lure users.

Millions of Burmese people are using zawgyi in their device.

Only a few people accepted Unicode.They are resistance forces against zawgyi. However, most of the phone in the market can display Burmese Unicode correctly starting from the end of 2015. A lot of Burmese contents were proliferating on the internet. But, as you know, data was messy without any systematic order and structure because most of them were not correctly encoded. The government was getting realized the importance of Unicode when they tried to change to E-Government system. Every IT projects developed in Myanmar always faced that issue between zawgyi and Unicode. They had to invest more time to solve that language problem.And developers as well.They want to end this war. They don’t want to think about this compatibility issues anymore.Until now, most of the content written in the Burmese language was being uploaded to Facebook. So, Facebook is kind of most responsible team in order to migrate all of Myanmar users to Unicode environment. Today, we see the most significant change in facebook.

There is no longer a barrier between zawgyi user and Unicode user.

Before that time, zawgyi user can only see posts written in zawgyi format, so Unicode was just an unreadable mess for them. For Unicode users, they had to click font conversion button in order to read zawgyi encoded texts.

That wall between Unicode and zawgyi came to collapse today.

Zawgyi user can read the Unicode text without changing any setting.
And, Unicode users can read zawgyi text without clicking any conversion button.

It seems like all the Unicode encoded text convert automatically to zawgyi in zawgyi users’ app and all zawgyi encoded text to convert to Unicode automatically in Unicode users’ app.

It’s not one-sided change. It changed on both sides.

So, zawgyi users are happy because they can read Unicode.

Unicode users were also happy at first, but when they realized that their contents were being converted into zawgyi in zawgyi users’ app, they were so upset.

They afraid that this kind of neutralization between Unicode and zawgyi by Facebook will have a negative impact on Unicode migration.

If zawgyi users can read Unicode without using Unicode, Unicode users think that people will still be using zawgyi for lifelong.

So, everybody has a different opinion on this change.

For me, I see from the positive side.

Most people want to change to Unicode but there is a fear in them.

That is they will feel lonely if they use Unicode since most of their friends and family are using zawgyi. So, most of them responded same words “ they will move to Unicode when everybody use Unicode”.

In order to break the communication barrier between their friends and family, every single one needs to use Unicode. That is a tremendous migration.

So, what I think is, if someone uses Unicode and his friends or family can also communicate him without using Unicode, there will not be any communication barrier between them.

It will be easy for Unicode user to attract others to move to Unicode environment.

The change what Facebook did is the same scenario.

However, there is a little flaw in this, people are worried about ethnic languages which are included in Burmese Unicode. Facebook neutralization doesn’t support ethnic languages until now. I think we can think about that issue later because Facebook can only support the Burmese language in their language setting.If we can attract many people to use Unicode, that kind of ethnic language problem will be solved itself.

And there is one more step needed to do to break the communication barrier. That is the messenger.

Conversion feature doesn’t work in messenger. So, the problem between zawgyi and Unicode will still be the same.

The next day after we received an update for android facebook app, ios version also received the similar update.

That update is quite different from Android users’. It’s one-sided conversion.

All the zawgyi contents convert to Unicode automatically.iPhone users are complaining about it on social media, they can no longer see zawgyi font correctly on Facebook. A solution has already come out.

Just remove zawgyi from ur phone and keep clean Unicode font and keyboard.

Then, your problem will be solved.

Most ios users are not satisfied with the solution.They hope that Facebook will restore the previous feature in next update.

So, some of them are afraid to update their app.

I don’t know what Facebook is planning to do with Burmese texts. I really wish they are on the right track.

None of the local developers will be able to solve this problem.The outermost effort we could do is producing some tools for Unicode.

It’s impossible to hack facebook system just to use Unicode.

Some people don’t understand this barrier.They think that local developers are so lame and facebook is the only savior who could end this war.

It’s half true. The only facebook can change their setting, set their language policy. Even our government doesn’t have any authority over facebook. On the one hand, local developers are producing some small-scale solutions in order to have smooth migration even though they don’t have any support.

I am so passionate to migrate to Unicode. But, you know, you can’t run alone. You have to wait and help others to know the track so that everyone will reach the same destination eventually.

I use both Unicode and zawgyi. I prefer zawgyi on facebook because it is much easier to communicate with my friends. But for work, such as writing, database, sheet and for other things, I use only Unicode. I can write both Unicode and zawgyi effortlessly.

We have to do many things to improve tech ecosystem in Myanmar, this Unicode and zawgyi troublesome is a block on the way. Unless we remove this one, we will never reach anywhere.

People who have the power to initiate this migration will need to realize this truth.

I am nobody comparing with them. I am neither developer who can create awesome conversion tools or solutions or authorities who have the power to order everyone to use Unicode.

Haha, just nobody.

The only thing I can do is to push them. To call for help.

From global organizations, global tech firms, and others who can see my post.

I hope one day we will no longer have a headache for this font problem.

We want to step ahead into data age, and wanna taste the essence of AI.




Arthur Chan
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