What is Unicode?

December 29,2020 - 5 min read
What is unicode?

Earlier, text and other information was stored in a simple manner. One byte was used to store a character and hence it gives you the ability to store up to 128 different characters. You can learn more about how binary coding works in the world of computer in this blog.

The problem that occurred was that different computer systems were using different set of characters and control characters according to their requirements. People felt the need to move the various kinds of text between different systems.

The solution for this problem was formulated in 1968 and declared by the US President Lyndon B. Johnson. After this declaration, the federal government decided to use computer systems which supported ASCII. Back then, ASCII was the best way out there and still, it is a very optimum solution. You can read more about ASCII codes in this blog.

However, there were some problems with the system of ASCII too, the first being the issue of usage outside of the US and the absence of certain characters. Every country tried to come up with their own version of ASCII and in no time, there were multiple versions of ASCII were in use in different parts of the world. Of course, this created a lot of confusion and meant only restricted versions of some languages can be used. The world quickly came up with a solution to these problems in 1991 and we would discuss that particular solution on this blog.

You must have heard the term ‘Unicode’, when dealing with the technical aspect of things around. Unicode is basically a universal character encoding standard. It assigns a code to every character and symbol of every language. Unicode is probably the only encoding standard that supports all languages and hence Unicode is also the only standard that ensures allows you to retrieve or combine data using any combination of languages. Unicode is most required with languages such as XML, Java, JavaScript, LDAP, and other web technologies.

Initially, Unicode was a 16-bit character encoding and hence it meant that it could encode as much as 65,536 characters. It included all characters you can imagine of using worldwide except for the rarest Chinese characters.

But even Unicode wasn’t distant from problems. 5 years after its first release, Unicode proved to not have enough space for all that it could do. This time, the system was evolved and not replaced. Unicode now refers to a range of different encodings which all map onto the list of characters. Originally, it encoded only the 65,536 characters available within Unicode, but now it has grown to contain over 110,000 characters. This revised set includes everything from Ancient Egyptian characters to different emoticons. Variable length Unicode encodings like UTF-8 emerged. Presently, Unicode is not just about encoding but also includes a set of rules and algorithms for displaying and transforming text.

UTF-8 and UTF-16 are the two most common Unicode implementations for computer systems. UTF-8 is a variable length encoding scheme in which each symbol is represented by a one- to four-byte code, and UTF-16 is a fixed width encoding scheme in which each symbol is represented by a two-byte code.

Now that we are familiarized with the basic concept of Unicode, let’s get ahead in our journey of getting to know the encoding system and understand why we use Unicode.

Why Use Unicode?

Unicode supports many languages such as French, Japanese, Hebrew and many more. Unicode enables the combination of records from different scripts on a single report. Earlier, a computer could only process a single script. The written symbols of this script were on its operating system code page. The absence of Unicode means that a computer could only process one language.

Nowadays, all new computer technologies use Unicode for text data. Unicode, the coding, standard, has been adopted by major industry leaders such as Microsoft, Apple, HP, IBM, Oracle and many others. The reason for the growing popularity of Unicode is that is the most optimum text encoding method in popular browsers such as Google Chrome and Firefox. Another use of this encoding system is that it is used internally in Java technologies, HTML, XML, and Windows and Office.

Determining Whether Unicode Is Necessary

The systems are configured with Unicode when there is a need to display text in unrelated scripts. Also, in some instances, Unicode is the only way to assimilate scripts and especially if there is a requirement to include third-party Unicode data. However, many systems also work without Unicode and it is not the only solution. One such case where you do not need a Unicode implementation is when you have Oracle data with a UTF-8 Unicode data type with the text is in Japanese and English and that is because both these languages are not unrelated scripts. The code page of Japanese is ASCII transparent that contains the standard English language characters along with additional non-English characters.

Unicode implementation is necessary only when you have to combine text in different scripts that are unrelated. Some examples of unrelated scripts can be Japanese, French, and Hebrew. For example, if your data contains text of an unrelated script, displayed on a single report, UTF-8 Unicode seems to be the only solution and you would have to configure your entire system for UTF-8 Unicode.

However, the configuration of UTF-8 Unicode is not as easy as it sounds. The full use of Unicode demands careful attention to the characteristics of browser, web server, and operating system including international language fonts, display and print features, and data input for unfamiliar and unrelated scripts. It is suggested to implement Unicode only when there is an urgent need to combine unrelated scripts in order to produce a desirable output.

Data Type

As mentioned above, UTF-8 is a variable-length encoding scheme. In general, 7-bit ASCII characters are one byte, many European extended (national) characters are two bytes, Double-Byte Characters symbols are three bytes whereas many European extended characters are of two bytes. The 7-bit ASCII characters are the familiar English letters and Double-Byte Character set is Japanese kanji. Also, one byte is not necessarily equal to one character in Unicode and hence you have to be careful to allow enough space for alphanumeric data type.

Unicode in Javascript

We have learnt the basics of Unicode, its need and its implementation. Now, it’s time to learn and know how Javascript uses Unicode internally. A JavaScript source file can have any type of encoding, but before executing, Javascript will convert the source file internally to UTF-16. Hence, all strings in Javascript are all UTF-16 sequences. The element of actual textual data in string is considered to be a single UTF-16 code unit. In the next segment we explain how to use Unicode in a string.

Unicode in a String

In a string, a Unicode sequence can be added using the format ‘\uDATA:‘. An example of using Unicode in a string is given below.

const string1 = ‘\u00E8’.

The Unicode for é is 00E8.

A sequence in Javascript can be created by writing two Unicode sequences together. An example of the same is given below.

const string2 = ‘\u0065\u0301

The string by the name of string2 is considered to be 2 characters long:

In Javascript, you can also write a string that combines a unicode character with a plain character. In the execution, it’s actually the same thing. In the example below, we have made a string that is similar to string2 but is declared in a different manner.

const string3 = ‘e \u0301’

In this example, the string by the name of ‘string3’ is considered to be equal to string2. You can check it by using the strict equality comparison operator.

String2 === string3 //the output would be ‘true’.

Encoding ASCII chars

ASCII stands for ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange.’ They are a set of codes that uses a range of numbers to represent alphabets and other special characters. ASCII codes are particularly useful when you are working with communications protocols. The first 128 ASCII characters can be encoded using the special escaping character ‘\x’. It only accepts 2 characters. There is an example given below –


The ASCII code for a is 61.

This was the basic understanding of Unicode. We hope this blog helped you with the basic concepts and nuances of this encoding system. This forms the basic structure for you to go ahead and make a career in technology. If you are confident and well versed with the concept of Unicode, we suggest you to promote yourself and make yourself more proficient in technology.

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