Ivan’s private site

October 4, 2008

Internationalization and smart phones: an unhappy marriage?

Filed under: General,Links,Work Related — Ivan Herman @ 18:01
Tags: , , , , , ,

I recently went through the process of renewing my mobile contract which (in Europe) is usually a good opportunity to update one’s phone. Although my previous (smart) phone, a Nokia 9300i, served me well, an upgrade to a newer model is always a good idea. However, it turned out to be more complicated than I thought…

The complication is that I am a little bit off the beaten track, so to say. I live in the Netherlands, but I usually work using English, and I have text (addresses, data) on my smart phone in Hungarian. This also means using characters specific to this language (ie, ű, ő). Ie, I need a system in English, but with the possibility to, somehow, type in those characters, too. I have lists of all my books, CD-s, etc, that I have been maintaining for many years and I’d like to have around on my smart phone. I would not think this is too much to ask…

Of course, following the hype, I looked at the iPhone. Although I must admit I do not really sympathize with the business approach taken by Apple for iPhones and its applications, I thought I would have a look nevertheless. But… Apple doesn’t speak Hungarian. Neither does it speak Czech, Croatian, and other Central European languages for that matter, except for Polish. This means that there is no way one can type in those characters (and I am not sure it could display them all right). With all the hype around the user friendliness of Apple I was shocked to see them forgetting about cca. 30-35 million people who would simply want to use their own language properly. Exit Apple’s iPhone…

Next stage was Windows Mobile based smart phones; after all, it claims to be Unicode based! And there are some very sexy models out there these days (like, the HTC Touch Pro or Samsung’s Omnia), which try to compete with the iPhone. So I had a look. Using an English model the system gives you the possibility to use a virtual keyboard, and this indeed gives the option of using a “symbol” pad containing all kinds of characters including my Hungarian ones. A little bit awkward but, well, one can live with it. So, for a moment, I thought I was sold! But then came the shock: there is no way one can get a Windows Mobile phone with an English operating system in the Netherlands! Providers can give you Dutch systems only. To add insult to injury, for some reason or other, the Dutch system does not include that extra symbol key pad. (Why?) Ie, even if I accepted to use a Dutch system, it would not be usable. Exit all Windows Mobile devices…

My next target was Nokias E90. A slightly older concept than these sexy new breed of smart phones, no touch screen, no animation but, after all, who really cares if otherwise it does the job? It is sold as an upgrade of the old 9300i (where I had no problem with those characters), so I expected to have all features I was looking for without any problems. Wrong…:-( The E90 (ie, Symbian S60, the operating system) indeed offers you a way to type in accented characters. But, as a default, only the Western ones… Ie, no problem typing in œ, or ç, but no ű or ő (or characters like ř, č, ł, to refer to non-Hungarian ones, too). Ie, the E90 is actually a step back compared to its predecessor, where typing in all these characters was not a problem.

Dead end? Well, almost. Thanks to my colleague, Steven Pemberton, we found out that Symbian gives you the possibility to switch languages via what it calls “writing aids”. This changes the available character set. The models sold in the Netherlands have English, Dutch, and… Romanian. Why Romanian I have no idea. But I was lucky: although the Romanian language does not use ű or ő, it so happens that there is a significant Hungarian minority living in Romania, so the character set for Romanian included those two characters, too. Ie, I was off the hook, but that was shere luck, not design. If I want to type in a, say, Czech character (eg, if I buy a new CD of Dvořak) then, well, I will have to do some copy paste:-( But I had no choice so, after all, I decided to live with that, and I am now the happy owner of a Nokia E90. Story ends.

Don’t take me wrong. For a bunch of other things the E90 is a very very good smart phone, has a much faster processor than the 9300i, Web access is really a breeze (it uses Safari, afaik), it looks and feels great. Ie, it serves my purpose after all. But I dream of a time when internationalization is not a pain but a natural part of these devices (or any other device, for that matter)…

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