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New Panther Language Features

With Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, Apple made sweeping changes to the operating system’s language handling and internationalization features, which are key to the Mac’s acceptance throughout much of the world and for many people who regularly work in multiple languages. Three weeks of working with the foreign language capabilities of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther reveals a number of interesting new features. Although the changes are not as great as those we saw in Jaguar – and a couple new bugs have been introduced – the experience is on balance overwhelmingly positive.

Input Improvements — When it comes to entering text in other languages, Panther features a number of welcome additions, including 14 new languages (with input keyboards and fonts), raising the total number to over 50. Panther adds Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Dari, Pashto, Uzbek, Armenian, Cherokee, Faroese, Northern Sami, Inuktitut, and Welsh. Also new are some new keyboards (often QWERTY or "Extended" versions) for languages that existed in Jaguar. Some people could be confused by an inability to access non-Roman characters in Cherokee and Inuktitut. The trick is that you must activate Caps Lock to access non-Roman characters. Why? I’m told that’s what "native users" expect.

Apple also revamped the input methods for Asian scripts (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) for the first time in a decade or so. The changes are primarily cosmetic though, with the old "pencil" menus now at the bottom of the "flag" menu. That said, the Japanese input method, Kotoeri, is thoroughly reorganized, with the six input options formerly buried in the "pencil" menu now listed separately in the "flag" menu, and the old "operations palette" gone. Unfortunately, Chinese users had a long wish list of input features that weren’t implemented in Panther.

In Panther, the venerable Key Caps application has disappeared entirely, being replaced with the floating Keyboard Viewer palette, which has no text input field but which types characters clicked on its graphical keyboard directly into the frontmost window. Another new floating Input Mode palette shows activated keyboards. Apple also modified the keyboard shortcuts for switching scripts and keyboards in ways that some people will find more efficient (but you still cannot disable using Command-Space, which some applications want to use for a different function, to switch between input scripts).

Display Improvements — Panther also offers a number of improvements on the display side, including the squashing of several bugs in Jaguar relating to the display of Devanagari and Arabic text. Most notably, though, Apple’s Mail can finally set the character set encoding for outgoing messages. This is a critical addition because, left to its own devices, Mail often chose the wrong encoding, resulting in messages that nobody could read. The encoding list for both incoming and outgoing messages is extensive, and if the one you need isn’t listed in the Language tab of the International preference pane, just click the Edit button and add it.

Panther now selects default fonts according to the priorities set in the Languages preference pane, so there should be less need to disable fonts to prevent inappropriate use. For instance, if you have Chinese above Japanese in the Language preference pane’s list, Panther should use Chinese fonts in preference over Japanese, even if another language is actually first in the list. One caveat: it’s possible that this new font fallback logic may require application support, so it may not be in effect in all applications yet. The number of languages supported for such prioritization and sorting operations has been increased to over 100, up from 64 in Jaguar (send me email if you want a list).

The Character Palette (accessible by choosing Characters from the Action menu – the "gear wheel" pop-up menu – in the Font palette) has a new pane that shows all the variations among fonts having a specific character, which is very useful for non-Roman scripts (it’s also an extremely cool way to see how a specific character looks in different fonts). Also, you can now access special capabilities of advanced fonts relating to ligatures, diacritics, glyph variants, and other features. Select the desired font in the Font palette and choose Typography from the Action menu.

Lastly, the Date/Time/Numbers tabs in Jaguar’s International preference pane have been replaced by a new Formats tab, which supports many more locales for the ways these items are expressed.

Eh? What Was That You Said? As welcome as the improvements discussed above are, Panther doesn’t address some of the limitations present in Jaguar, and it also seems to have introduced some new bugs.

Despite all the new keyboards, Panther doesn’t sport any new system languages. I expected that Apple would at least add Russian, since Apple Computer Russia used to provide a Russian localization for both Mac OS X 10.1 and 10.2 as a separate download. Greek users will also be disappointed at the lack of a Greek localization. Note that you must perform a custom install if you do not want all the system localizations, or if you do want all the available fonts. However, you can add the system localizations and "Fonts for Additional Languages" afterwards by running the appropriate installers from the second and third Panther installation CDs.


In the category of actual defects, a text bug makes it impossible to input certain accented characters using the U.S. (and other) "Extended" keyboards in Cocoa programs. The Simplified Chinese input system has a new pinyin engine which doesn’t deal correctly with certain input combinations. And Mac OS X still does not work correctly with Greek in certain OpenType fonts like Adobe Minion Pro.

The significant improvements in Panther unfortunately cannot change the fact that AppleWorks, all Microsoft products for the Mac (aside from MSN Messenger and the MSN 8 integrated browser), along with several important desktop publishing and Web publishing products are not yet Unicode-savvy, and thus cannot handle a number of languages. But this situation is bound to improve with time, as can be seen by the recent updates of Adobe InDesign CS and Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004. Also, new programs like the word processor Mellel can help fill the gap.




Additional Info — For more extensive information on Mac OS language issues, visit the Multilingual Mac and Chinese-Mac Web sites.



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