Trying to explain to an IT-illiterate why Outlook’s emoticons don’t travel well

By  | July 30, 2011 | Filed under: Miscellaneous

It’s to do with character sets.

Computers work in numbers not letters. So to a computer, A might be stored as 65, B as 66, C as 67 and so on.

So a computer could store HELLO as 71 69 76 76 79.

And the people who design computers decide that the characters needed by English-speaking people are:

– a to z
– A to Z
– 0 to 9
– and a load of punctuation.

Let’s say that there are 128 characters in total. This is a “character set”. Let’s call it ASCII.

So all the American computers are made to use ASCII and we’re all happy because I can send you an email and your computer shows you the same letters that I typed on my computer.

Meanwhile the Japanese and Chinese and so on develop their own character sets so that they can use computers in their own languages.

This causes a problem because if someone in America is sent an email in Japanese then they can’t read it. The Japanese email will arrive encoded like this: 65 31 43 41 90 23 37 35 35 48 … and the American will see something like this: Aergke reiugh.

This happens because the American character set will use 65 to mean A but the Japanese character set will use 65 to mean one of the Japanese characters.

To solve this problem someone decides to make a single universal character set that includes all the characters used all over the world. So 65 will be A in America, China and Japan. The letter A won’t be used very often in Japan but if an American sends an email to Japan then it will look right when the person in Japan is reading it. All the Japanese characters are in this universal character set. They have numbers like 320, 321 and so on. Chinese characters have numbers like 760, 761 and so on. There are arabic characters, every possible bit of punctuation and everything that anyone on earth needs for typing a normal sentence.

This character set is called unicode and it is ace. Unicode is why you can go to and see the actual Chinese characters.

Now to the point. Some idiot decided that Outlook would be really good if people could compose emails with smiley faces. This fools the poor unknowing users into thinking that these smiley faces will be displayed properly to the recipient. However, these smiley faces are not in Unicode. Most other email programs don’t know that the number that Outlook has sent is a smiley face and so they display something else instead. My email program has displayed a J.

Computers are complicated.

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