iPhone 3.0 Unicode Support (Finding the ŵ)


This week I upgraded my iPhone (actually iPod Touch) software to version 3.0, and although I noted the copy/paste and enhanced landscape display, of course I zoned in on the note saying there was increased character support. Hmmm.

As a warning, I have to admit that I'm a little behind the times in mobile computing, so bear with me if I repeat something you already know. Still, I'm not seeing this information all in one place it it may be a good over (at least for me).

The good news is that there does appear to be more character support, but the feature is still too well-hidden (I really had to work hard to find Welsh support). The iPhone also fails my test for general Unicode readiness because I am not able to yet enter phonetic characters like /ŋ,ɛ,ʃ/ (if nothing else that would kill the iPhone as a remote data entry device). However I doubt the iPhone is really not alone in that area.

So if you are wondering what I am talking about, let me discuss in context:

Baseline Support

Unicode data and display for major languages is generally supported. If Safari can display your Unicode Webpage, it will appear correctly on your iPhone...assuming that the built in fonts support the character. Further, if you have entered/purchased an exotic title in iTunes, it will appear correctly in your synched iTunes list on the iPhone.

Entering Accents

The next challenge is entering some exotic characters into e-mail or a notes application. If you are dealing with Roman characters, iPhone does have some support, but not as much as I would like. The easiest non-English characters to find are foreign currency symbols like £ (pound), ¥ (yen) and € (euro). You typically access these by clicking the the symbol set (often right after the numerals).

While I was able to figure that out, I admit to being stumped as to how to enter accented letters such as Spanish ñ or French è. Fortunately a quick Google search turned up some help sites including this blog entry from Pixelcoma. As you can see, the trick is to hold down a base key such as N or E to see the options for accented characters.

The trick though is that you have to drag your finger across to the right character. You can't hold and double tap as I tried to do. Oops

As stated earlier, there are more options in the palette than in previous earlier versions. For instance, the Pixelcoma A options show A,À,Á,Ä,Æ,Ã,Å,Ą which already covers lots of Western and Central European languages, but Version 3 does add Ā (macron) which is good for Japanese Romaji, Hawaiian, Maori and Latin with long marks (I know there are Latin users out there). I assume that there are other important additions at the other base letters.

However, there are still apparent gaps such as Welsh accented W and Icelandic þ,ð/Ð as well as Romanian Ă, Turkish Ğ,Ş and İ, Latvian Ņ and other really exotic accented letters. It turns out that many are actually in keyboard options installed on the iPhone with additional characters. It still can feel like these languages are "second" class in comparison to Spanish, French and German (at least Polish, Czech and Hungarian have been "mainstreamed" which is a plus).

Before I leave this section though, I do have a comment for future devlopers:

Future developers - if you want to wow your audience with global accent support, you may want to start here at the Wikipedia Latin palette.


That way we can avoid the agonizing incremental addition of accented letters as individual user communities step forward. Why not be comprehensive at the start - like the Apple U.S. Extended keyboard (which is major reasons I still love Apple).

As much as I kvetch though, I don't think the iPhone is worse than any other U.S. mobile device. A forum post for Blackberry mentions holding down a vowel and moving a trackball. ¡Qué divertido!

Other Keyboards

As mentioned previously, if your character is not available in the accent palette, you may need to activate the keyboards (just like in the laptop/desktop). On the iPhone, you access these by clicking the Settings app, then going to General Settings then International. A number of keyboards for languages like Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic as well as Icelandic, Turkish, Latvian are available (still no Welsh, unless it's hiding under the U.K. keyboard (yes it is !)).

This adds a globe icon (like the one below) to the usual iPhone keyboard and allows you to switch between keyboard modes. I just switched to the U.K. keyboard and behold, I found the ŵ under the W key (but now the ¥ key is missing).

Icon for International Keyboards on iPhone

What I Really Want...

Actually it's not necessarily more accented letters as I hold down a key. My thumb is shuddering at how the potential pain of dragging or trackballing additional accents on top of the other precision maneuvers required for English texting. I actually want several things

First, slightly better keyboard designs. The iPhone Google keyboard has the right idea when it makes the @ sign and .com extension basic keys. We already have options for switching on canned keyboards, but what if we had options for customizable keyboards. Maybe one with a "symbol" dock into which you drag the characters or phrases you need from a master slot (this way Americans learning Welsh CAN have their accented W's). Maybe you can reshuffle as well (like killing the \ key if you only synch with a Mac).

But I have to confess that I really want to be able to plug my iPhone into a keyboard. IThe touch interface is fine short small tasks on the run (like looking up movie times or weather by zip code), but still not so great for longer data entry or note taking tasks. I know it's Palm Pilot, but I am at a stage where I would like to ditch the laptop for short meetings and only carry a mobile device and take notes. I note that there are there are hacks out there already...despite the useful shortcuts provided. That should be a sign for Apple and other makers of mobile devices that the need is out there (bummer dudes).

It goes without saying that if true Mac keyboard integration comes, it should come with support for the U.S. Extended and other keyboard variations Apple and the user community have concocted (Windows users can use the U.S. International keyboard for the Mac).

A final wish though is better documentation. The Unicode support for iPhone is decent, but it's quite a chore tracking it all down through numerous user blogs and guessing. I know Apple relies somewhat on it's "intuitive" interface to help users through, but, for whatever reason, Unicode support is rarely intuitive. You just have to know where things are. I'm glad there's a user community out there but from the lack of documentation (especially in comparison to Microsoft) it seems like Apple doesn't care about these issues (when I think they really do).

Microsoft has various Globalization sites (in English), so why can't Apple (or at least one I can find)? Is it because we're in the U.S? To me, It's a little condescending to me to assume that just because I live in the U.S. I will rarely need to enter non-English text. In fact, I type something "non-English" nearly every day.

About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage (ejp10@psu.edu) for a profile.


The standard commenting utility has been disabled due to hungry spam. If you have a comment, please feel free to drop me a line at (ejp10@psu.edu).

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