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Why is Unicode used in the latest operating systems instead of ASCII?

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closed as off topic by harrymc, Joe Taylor, Shinrai, Ivo Flipse Mar 8 '11 at 18:32

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LOWER-CASE, PLEASE! –  harrymc Mar 8 '11 at 17:54
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Should this be tagged [homework]? –  Phoshi Mar 8 '11 at 21:20
    
> Why is Unicode used in the latest operating systems instead of ASCII? Um… because there are other languages besides English. –  Synetech Oct 12 '12 at 2:22

3 Answers 3

Because it provides an easy and uniform mapping of all characters currently in use without having to switch code pages. Besides, you probably mean EASCII or ANSI (or some other derivative with 256 characters).

To give you an example: using Russian and Czech on the same system would have been impossible some time ago (i.e. without Unicode), because the code pages would have conflicted. So names of files (among other objects) would have been displayed improperly for either one, depending on the code page currently selected.

Unicode mitigates that and adds some other concepts. For an all around good overview I can recommend "Unicode Explained" from O'Reilly. Also, it's written by someone who cares about internationalization, which cannot be said - even now - of many English native speakers, as ASCII (0..127) can be used to cover all English sentences and no code page issues exist, even when using EASCII as long as you stick to plain Latin characters.

While the implementations differ (Debian uses UTF-8, while newer Windows uses UTF-16 and older NT-based Windows used UCS-2, a subset of UTF-16), Unicode takes away all the limitations imposed by code pages, which is the killer argument for using it.

If you are interested in it for programming, have a look at ICU.

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Short answer: Because Unicode supports more characters than ASCII.

From Wikipedia:

Unicode is intended to address the need for a workable, reliable world text encoding. Unicode could be roughly described as "wide-body ASCII" that has been stretched to 16 bits to encompass the characters of all the world's living languages. In a properly engineered design, 16 bits per character are more than sufficient for this purpose.

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UTF-8 was designed from the ground up to be backward compatible with ASCII. Instantly any 7 bit ASCII system instantly became a basic UTF-8 system (albeit not necessarily handling more than the 127 characters of basic ASCII).

UTF-8 expands on the ASCII system by allowing multiple bytes to be put together to make up a single character. This lets computers handle many hundreds of thousands of different characters - the aim of which is to be able to have all the characters of all the alphabets of all the languages together in one big character table.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UTF-8 explains how it all works in detail.

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I'm afraid this is wrong. As Unicode has over 100,000 characters, it isn't true that "65536 individual characters [is] plenty for every imaginable character" Also, a UTF-8 file can include all of those Unicode characters - there's no need to resort to UTF-16. –  RedGrittyBrick Mar 8 '11 at 18:34
    
Oooh, you learn something new every day. Good ol' Wikipedia... –  Majenko Mar 8 '11 at 21:09
    
The question was about Unicode in general (versus the old mix of iso8859-number codepages). –  grawity Mar 8 '11 at 21:30

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