January 15, 2005

What Word Processor to work with Unicode Hebrew

Pages -- the new kid on the block Apple has announce a new word procesor, Pages. It is part of the application suite, iWork '05, which replaces Appleworks. Pages is a cocoa app, and hence its text engine has surely implemented Right-to-Left support for languages such as Hebrew. This was tentatively verified for me at the Expo. Once we see it in action, it might very well take precedence as the simplest, most wide spread solution for scholars doing work with Hebrew. Mellel, directed towards scholarly work Mellel remains a superior option for doing Unicode work. The developer of Mellel sent me a copy a couple months back, and it is very impressive. Developed by native Hebrew speakers, the application also has a leg up, particularly as it is geared towards academic work. But, it has a major setback regarding it's use among moderate style/font adept users; it's unicode implementation is non-standard and can be confusing. In every other application I've seen, you need not change fonts to a unicode font that supports a particular language character range. So, if in TextEdit you are typing in the Helvetica font, and you switch to a Hebrew keyboard, the font automagically switches to another one which contains Hebrew, say, Lucida Grande. In Mellel, for the sake of having more control over the text, you get those annoying boxes and mystery characters until you manually change the font. In some ways, this eliminates a powerful aspect of using Unicode to begin with (one I'll explain more simply in a future post). In a note, the developer of Mellel told me he's working on making it a user-defined preference to toggle between the "let me stay ignorant of the details" option and the "let me have complete control over which fonts are redering which languages" option. Where is Word in all this? Well, you may have heard the woes of it all. But, the dark truth is that while Microsoft Word for Windows has long supported Right-to-Left Unicode Hebrew, Microsoft chose yet again not to spend the resources on its newest edition Word 2004 to implement support for R2L languages. You can forget Unicode Hebrew with Word 2004. It will not get the character and or word order correct. Furthermore, since the characters will be in the wrong order, the vowel pointing will not be recognized in the order it needs to be in for proper placement, hence they will not be combined with letters. Bottom line... forget it. Hebrew doesn't work with Word 2004. (The exception to that is documents written in Word for Windows using Hebrew can be opened and viewed in Word 2004 for Mac, but don't try any editing.) Much effort went into lobbying, suing, etc. to get Micro$soft to add Hebrew support in the first and the most recent version of Word for OS X. They found it not worth the expense. The problem is that the text engine for Micro$oft Office would have to be rewritten to allow Right-to-Left text, and the work of rewriting the Office text engine is tremendous, for a target market representing a relatively small number of language users. The Information Technology news-source at The Register did a great job of covering the ongoing saga regarding Micro$oft's refusal to do the work to implement right-to-left Unicode support. Several articles covered the story; here is one such article, but you can search for more: You may find particularly interesting the letter written by the head of the Mac Business Unit at Microsoft in response to the issue, where he essentially says, "There aren't enough Mac users in the Right-to-Left world to make it good business to spend the resources on it." He won't state it this way, but here's the real deal: On any new venture to infiltrate a market, a business takes a big hit on front end costs so that eventually Hebrew users could be won over to using Word for Mac; but remember that where they'd be won over from is a Microsoft platform, hence eliminating the incentive all together. Finally, the final incentive for Micro$oft to bite the bullet (and avoid lawsuit for using monopoly power to force users to use a particular OS) and add Hebrew support went away when Open Office, an open source competitor, added R-t-L support last year. Israel institutions began adopting Open Office all over the place. Eventually, a revision of Word WILL include Right-to-Left Unicode support--simply because it is inevitable. This may happen sooner for a tangential reason all together. The Office text engine for Windows is being rewritten, and the Mac Business Unit will be porting it into the next version of Word. This engine will make implementation of Right-to-Left more easy to implement. I've no idea how many years before we see this in fruition in the Mac. So, as scholars who work with Hebrew, what should we be using? I appreciated learning from the perspective an IT department in Israel. Shuki manages the Mac User Group list at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This is what they suggest for Hebrew to their students: "Two good options: Mellel (by redlex ) or OpenOffice . The latter is an open source software therefore is FREE. It supports also Excel and ppt files. Mellel is a great software too offering some new features to word processing. Its compatibility with Word docs is less good than OO. It costs about $25. If you need Eng only, you could use MS Office 2004 for the Mac OS X. It doesn't support Heb writing but displays Heb files coming from Windows machines quite well." I think we can now add Nisus to that list as well. I've not looked at it. And heck, you can do all your Hebrew work in TextEdit, the simple application that comes with OS X. It works beautifully. But if my suspicions come true, Pages is going to do wonders for this support. We shall see when it ships later this month.


Bill Combs said...

Thanks so much for your info on the word processors. You answered a lot of questions. Look forward to info on Pages.

Bill Combs
Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

joan said...

I have a mac 7200 running on os 7.6 with Word 5.1 with which I do Hebrew. It has a R2L macro. I do not have it hooked up to a printer. My ibook os 10.8.3, can read Hebrew from the disks that I copy from one to the other but no R2L. When I tried to install the R2L macro on the ibook os 9.2, the ibook started freezing. I took the macro out. Needless to say, Microsoft has forgotten they ever made Word 5.1 so I struggle with Office X.
Thank you for the info on Office 2004.
I am so happy to hear about Open Office. I will try there.

powtac said...

Thank you very much for this article, it answers many questions!

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