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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Chinese Characteristics

The days of English-only computing are over

By Andrea Hamilton

AMERICA MAY BE THE computer industry’s driving force, but the days of monolingual tyranny — read, English only — are on the way out. Computer and software makers understand that Asian-language computing is the next growth industry and are cranking out new products to satiate burgeoning demand. There remain glitches aplenty, but language-specific software and operating systems are widely available. A rundown:

THE KEYBOARD IS MIGHTIER... As any Chinese speaker knows, using a Qwerty keyboard to type characters into a computer is tedium personified. Over the years various pen-based solutions have emerged. But they were slow and error-prone. The situation has improved somewhat with Motorola’s WisdomPen (pronounced HuiBi in Chinese), a character-recognition system that does a creditable job of recognizing cursive (joined-up) writing. Still, WisdomPen takes some getting used to: an accomplished techie spent 15 minutes entering the four characters that make up the name of this magazine. It is a four-step process: With a special pen, one writes on a digital tablet; character options appear on-screen; you pick the right one; and insert it in a text box. WisdomPen gets easier with practice but no accomplished Chinese typist would ditch their keyboard — not yet. WisdomPen recognizes the order of strokes, crucial since many characters look similar. It also recognizes traditional and simplified text so you can write one and print the other. Another road-tester reports the software misread only two out of 30 characters, many of them archaic, copied from an ancient tome. WisdomPen sells for $180 and runs with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95.

APPLE’S ANSWER WisdomPen doesn’t run on a Macintosh. But that’s okay because Apple has come up with its own solution to the vexing character-input problem. Its latest entry in the language stakes is the Advanced Chinese Input Suite, which uses a combo of pen, keyboard and voice-recognition. The handwriting component is much the same as WisdomPen — you scribble characters and the software guesses what they are. Apple claims it is 98% accurate, though again it takes practice. There are three writing modes: left to right, right to left and top to bottom. An on-screen keyboard allows you to insert punctuation or special symbols. The package is bundled with Stroke Player, a guide to writing characters properly, specifically the correct order of the strokes. The voice-recognition option requires the user to talk, and you must read supplied text so the program can get a handle on your verbal idiosyncrasies. (Teaching it takes about two-and-a-half hours.) The software recognizes Mandarin and Cantonese. The $200 suite includes a mike and a CD-ROM full of software.

TALKING WEB SITE A new Bell Labs web site converts text to speech.Visitors to can sample speech in nine different lingos including Chinese. You type words on a PC, and the site converts it to speech. The Mandarin demo won’t wow native speakers, though. It takes at least a minute for the program to repeat the phrase. And compared to the English and German samples, the voice is synthetic to the point of being barely intelligible. The tones are especially hard to hear. Critic’s verdict: needs work.

Operating systems The computer’s basic software is also going Asian. Macs are now multi-lingual thanks to WorldScript and “plug-in” kits available in various languages. WorldScript gives Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Indian users what Anglo-speakers have long taken for granted: icons, menus and toolbars in their own tongue. Users select the language, then the inputting method — pen-based or voice-activated — and the font. You can use several languages in one document and create language- specific web sites and movies.

SOFTWARE SMORGASBORD Singapore’s WinMASS Pro allows you to input and view Asian languages on an English Windows-based PC without loading a local-language operating system. Based on the Unicode standard (an ongoing effort by U.S. software firms to create one programming code for all languages), it is available in Chinese, Japanese, Tamil and Korean. Other Indian languages are in the works.

Symantec has released a Chinese version of its Norton AntiVirus 2.0 program for Windows NT. It scans for bugs invading via floppy disks, CD-ROMs, the Internet, intranets, e-mail or compressed files. Then it repairs the damage.

Claris’s new version of Home Page 2.0 allows Webmasters to create sites in character-based languages. Cost: $199. Claris also has a website (address: accessible to users who have installed Chinese-capable operating systems set to read traditional big-5 character sets.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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