Mongol Bichig, or why Microsoft Internet Explorer is better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera

After writing this post I found out that Google Chrome, in fact, does support vertical Mongolian text.

The title of this post is designed to catch the eye. Microsoft Internet Explorer is not better than Firefox, Chrome and Opera – it’s worse than them in every imaginable regard.

Except one: the support for Mongol Bichig, the vertical Mongolian script.

Text in vertical Mongolian
Text in vertical Mongolian

Mongolian script is unique: its letters are connected, similarly to Arabic and its lines are written vertically. About three million Mongols in the independent republic of Mongolia use this script mostly for historical purposes, and use the Cyrillic script in their daily life, but the classical vertical script is the regular script for nearly six million Mongols in China – that’s about twice as much people.

The only browser that is able to display the vertical Mongolian script is Microsoft Internet Explorer. I don’t really know why Microsoft bothered to do it; maybe because the government of the People’s Republic of China demanded it. If that is true, then i salute the government of the People’s Republic of China. And i definitely salute Microsoft. I don’t like Microsoft’s insistence on keeping their code proprietary, but pioneering the support for this script, or any other, is praiseworthy.

I am very sad that at this time i cannot recommend my Mongolian friends to use my favorite browser, Firefox, or other modern browsers such as Google Chrome and Opera. For all their modernity, speed, feature richness and standards compliance, they are useless to over six million people who want to read and write in the vertical Mongolian script. At most, these browsers can display the script horizontally and with some letters incorrectly rendered. This also means that the only useful operating system for these people is Microsoft Windows.

One explanation that i heard for not supporting the vertical Mongolian script is that the CSS writing modes standard is not completely defined. This is actually a good and even noble reason, but when the most basic ability to read a language is in question, experimental support is better than no support.

So, which modern free browser will be the first to support the Mongolian script? I guess that it will be Firefox, given its excellent track record in supporting Unicode, and that Google Chrome will follow it after three years or so. But if Chrome developers surprise me and get there first, i’ll be just as happy. In any case, i am waiting impatiently, along with more than six million Mongols.

* * *

A completely unrelated postscript, intentionally hidden here, feel free to stop reading now: This morning i woke up to find that my Planet Mozilla feed was filled with reactions to a post by Gervaise Markham a.k.a. Gerv, in which he advocated keeping marriage defined as a union between a man and a woman, essentially opposing gay marriage. A lot of people were angry that anti-gay comments appear in a Mozilla-related feed and a lot of people were angry that anything off-topic appears there. Some people supported Gerv in different ways.

Gerv is a very well-known and very talented Mozilla programmer, and also a devout Christian. His blog is called “Hacking for Christ”. There’s nothing weird or wrong about it – there are many other excellent Christian hackers, like Perl’s Larry Wall and Jonathan Worthington and Mozilla’s Jonathan Kew. Gerv’s comment wasn’t particularly hateful; as it often goes, it focused on the legal side of things. Gerv is also an unusually charming person; i had the pleasure to meet him in Berlin.

All that said, i support gay marriage, i don’t support Gerv’s comment and i think that he shouldn’t have post it that way. But once he did, hey – water under the bridge. I care much more about his contributions to Mozilla’s code than about his social, legal and religious opinions.

And the loveliest part of it all is that in one the many comments to his post, i found a link to the play “8”, about the fight for recognizing gay marriage in California. On one hand, it’s a very well played PR stunt, with the highest league stars such as like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Yeardley Smith, John C. Reilly and George Takei. On the other hand, it’s actually worth watching. If this is what came out of that poorly placed blog post, then i’m not complaining.

Why Google Chrome Will Make the Web Worse Than Television

I know very few people who still watch television.

Television is boring, pointless and hopelessly outdated. For some reason millions of people still watch it, but it’s a matter of time until the whole industry will crumble like the governments of the USSR and Libya did, and we shall wonder why did it take so long. It will be painful to some people who make their living from it, but it will happen.

The future of entertainment and broadcasting is shaping now, and the direction is not bad. With each version of the modern web browsers – Firefox, Chrome and Opera – embedding video into pages is getting easier and works better. Users are forced less and less to install proprietary and unstable plugins. Flash is becoming a thing of the past, with YouTube working without it just as well. Diverse people create excellent music and films in their homes and they are able to publish it instantly. Business models for getting people to pay for DRM-free video and music are improving, too, for everybody’s benefit.

For some reason, however, Google and Microsoft aren’t happy about these perfectly sensible developments. They are proposing to add DRM – Digital Restriction Management – to the HTML standard. This weird document says that “No ‘DRM’ is added to the HTML5 specification“, but a document that speaks about encrypting and “protecting” content is a document about DRM. This is not “protection”, but restriction, and it is defective by design.

Preventing the copying of music and video files is not actually important to Google or to the media production companies. They will find ways to charge money for music and video. They rather want to know who is listening to what, to know what to produce and to whom to sell it. Google is essentially an advertising company, and an advertising company’s biggest asset is demographic data about people’s tastes and customs.

This is a grave privacy concern, of course, but there are enough privacy geeks to write about that. I’m not much of a privacy geek; what i really care about for this matter is the future of culture. Culture has to be interesting, vibrant and constantly innovative. When advertisers and media providers know the tastes of the “consumers” too well, culture tends to repeat itself and become very bad. Much like television in the last few years.

It is highly unlikely that the W3C will accept this proposal and make it standard. W3C dislikes DRM to begin with, Mozilla representatives in the W3C will definitely oppose to it, and even Google’s own W3C representative isn’t enthusiastic about it. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine that Google will implement this proposal in Chrome, and Microsoft will implement it in Internet Explorer. Then they will set up several websites with “partners” who will provide “content” that cannot be played without this DRM scheme, and this will pull more people into using these browsers and lock them into a nightmare of pointless, recycled, creativity-stifling entertainment.

I am a Mozillian. You may think that this means that i want Firefox’s market share to be 100%. That is not what i want. I love the web and i want it to be great for all people, no matter which browser they use. Building Digital Restriction Management into browsers will make the web, and the whole culture around it, bad and boring.

Don’t let that happen to the web. If you care about culture and arts, use Firefox – a browser that is committed to openness and not to advertising revenue.

Mozilla at the Israel Internet Society Conference 2012

On Tuesday i attended the Israel Internet Society Conference 2012.

I spent most of my time at the Mozilla Israel booth – giving away buttons and stickers, and, more importantly, telling many people about Mozilla’s mission and about the importance of the open web. Our booth was one of the most popular attractions in the event’s hallways. (This is the right place to say a big Thank You to the Mozilla Creative Collective for designing the wonderful posters, buttons and all the other eye-catching stuff. You give Mozilla’s great principles and projects the beautiful and fun look that they deserve.)

Standing like that and telling person after person that Mozilla is not a commercial company and that it’s concerned with far more important things than Firefox’s market share is very satisfying and sobering.

Right-to-left: Elad Alfassa, Amir Aharoni, Tomer Cohen
Right-to-left: Elad Alfassa, Amir Aharoni, Tomer Cohen. Mozilla Israel is an open community, which is friendly to other open projects, so in addition to Mozilla Firefox swag, Elad gave out Fedora CDs and i gave out Wikipedia stickers.

We tried to give special attention to Mozilla’s mobile projects – first and foremost, the rewritten version of the mobile Firefox for Android, which is not yet complete, but getting there; we also got some people to install a preview version (Aurora) of the mobile browser. I’m happy to see that there are quite a lot of open-minded people who are willing to try another interesting browser, even though it’s not completely polished it and even though the default kinda works. Some people who expressed interest in education were very also impressed when i showed them that the Mobile Firefox, though still not being release-quality, is able to render Hebrew poetry very well – something that the built-in Webkit browser is not able to do.

The famous poem "Only About Myself" by Rachel, rendered correctly in Mobile Firefox.
The famous poem "Only About Myself" by Rachel, rendered correctly in Mobile Firefox.
The same poem, rendered incorrectly by the Mobile Webkit browser. That's the one that's just called "Browser" or "Internet" on your phone.
The same poem, rendered incorrectly by the Mobile Webkit browser. That's the one that's just called "Browser" or "Internet" on your phone.

You see, you usually don’t need correct rendering of the special characters needed to display Hebrew poetry if you only use the web to write email and read news, but if you are a school student who wants to prepare the homework or a commuter who likes to read poetry on a train, you’ll be able to do it with Firefox, but not with Webkit (the Opera browser is broken in this regard, too). This is more than a small and unimportant feature that happens to work correctly; this is a demonstration of the fact that Mozilla developers think that it’s important to support all languages, all scripts and all standards – for all people.

And of course there were all those people who said “Why should I bother with Firefox if Chrome is faster?”. It was very pleasant to tell them that the claim that Chrome is faster is mostly a myth, (although it required some mental preparation), but we emphasized that Chrome, though it’s a nice open source project, is mostly developed by an advertising company, which has particular requirements and focuses on particular goals, while Firefox focuses on standards and users. (I’ll publish a post that explains why the claim that Google Chrome is faster is a myth very soon.)

Firefox Home, the app for synchronizing desktop Firefox with iPhone, was a hit, too, and a few people installed it on their iPhones right at the booth.

This was a very satisfying day.

Right-to-left: Elad Alfassa, Tomer Cohen and the special guest Simon Montagu - one of the wizards who make exotic Unicode fonts and right-to-left text work in Firefox
Right-to-left: Elad Alfassa, Tomer Cohen and the special guest Simon Montagu - one of the wizards who make exotic Unicode fonts and right-to-left text work in Firefox

Do you believe in Mozilla’s goal of open web, based on open standards and open to all people? Become a Mozilla Rep!

Web Fonts and Web Browsers – why Firefox is the best choice for most people who don’t read in the Latin alphabet

In December the Localization team of the Wikimedia Foundation, of which i am a proud member, deployed the support for web fonts in Wikipedias in several languages of India. Put simply, this technology allows anyone with reasonably modern web browser to read Wikipedia in an exotic language without manually installing exotic fonts on his computer. Tom Morris wrote a very nice blog post that explain why web fonts matter: Web fonts were invented for making web sites niftier, but they are useful for something much more important beyond aesthetics and design – to enable people to read and write in any language effortlessly. People need to be able to read and write effortlessly using a computer, but this notion is so basic that it is frequently overlooked.

Basically, web fonts turn this:

◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌, ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌.◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌, ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌ ◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌.

into this:

Near the beginning of his career, Einstein thought that Newtonian mechanics was no longer enough to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field.

Without webfonts, a person who speaks a language that is not written in Latin letters has two choices when seeing “◌◌◌◌ ◌◌◌ ◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌◌”: to install fonts manually or to try to find that information in English or some other language that is written in Latin. Two frequently ignored facts: 1. most people don’t know how to install fonts on their computers; 2. most people don’t know English.

Web fonts make text readable without any effort from the user. Wikipedia is probably the first major website that uses web fonts for the really important purpose of allowing people to read websites in their language. This post here will highlight some technical details about the deployment.

A spoiler: Firefox rulez.

Microsoft Internet Explorer, not surprisingly, has the most issues with web fonts support. For example, it sometimes shows complete gibberish instead of the actual letters. The situation is especially bad on Windows XP; Windows XP is an old system, but it matters, because lots of people in India and in many other countries still use it – about 17% of Wikipedia’s readers use Internet Explorer on Windows XP. Even though Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 seems to handle web fonts decently, it cannot be installed on Windows XP, so it’s irrelevant to hundreds of millions of people. My advice to them – get Firefox.

Opera sucks here and there, too. For example, on a Mac, Opera may fail to show English (!) words, because it tries to show them in an Indic font, and if an Indic font doesn’t have Latin characters, the display is broken. Google Chrome has similar problems, too.

In Firefox we found practically no issues with web fonts support. The only problem with Firefox that happened during the deployment of WebFonts is that Firefox didn’t load the fonts at all, but actually that happened because Firefox implements the web fonts standard correctly. On our testing site the font files were loaded from the same server as the web page itself, while on the actual Wikipedia the font files are loaded from a different domain to improve performance. The web fonts standard says that by default a browser is not supposed to load fonts from a different domain, unless that domain explicitly allows this. Chrome, Opera and Internet Explorer override this standard and load the fonts and Firefox doesn’t. When we noticed it, we asked Wikimedia’s web server administrators to change the configuration to explicitly allow the loading of fonts. Wikimedia’s web server configuration files are open, so you’re welcome to read them by clicking the link.

I didn’t make any precise measurements, but from my personal experience Firefox has much less issues with support for Unicode, complex fonts and right-to-left text than any other browser. It surely does have issues, but my impression is that Chrome, Internet Explorer and Opera have much more of them.

We reported the font issues that we found in Google Chrome to its developers and we hope that they will be fixed. We also tried to report issues in Opera and Internet Explorer; since there’s no public bug tracking systems for these browsers, we cannot track their development.

Keyboards, Firefox, Chrome and Privacy

I hardly ever used Google Chrome because of a bug that made the Ctrl-arrow keyboard shortcut work incorrectly in right-to-left languages. This shortcut works makes the cursor jump a word to the left or to the right. In Hebrew and Arabic it would jump to the left when the right arrow was be pressed. It works well in most other programs, but since Chrome doesn’t use the operating system’s text editing capabilities, this worked incorrectly.

I write a lot of email, blog posts and Wikipedia articles and this keyboard shortcut is essential for me, so if it doesn’t work correctly in a program, i simply cannot use it and will use the competitor, in my case Firefox. Since i love Firefox anyway, it was not really a problem for me.

It took more than two years to do it, but this bug is more or less solved now and the fix will probably be released soon. I am now trying a preliminary version and the Ctrl-arrow shortcut seems to work correctly. However, as i expected, i quickly found other problems because of which i cannot use Google Chrome. Long story short, i cannot write Russian there. It’s not that it’s impossible – it’s just way too hard for me.

I could enable the Russian keyboard layout in my operating system, but it would be very hard to use for me. Keyboards sold in my country usually come with Latin and Hebrew letters printed on the keys and not Russian. It’s possible to buy a keyboard with Russian letters on it, and i did it once, but it didn’t help me much. You see, i write Russian several times a day, but less often than i write Hebrew or English, and the Russian layout is very different from the Latin layout, so i type in it very slowly even if i have the letters in front of my eyes.

Since 2006 my solution for this issue was the Transliterator add-on for Firefox, created by Alex Benenson (thank you so much, Alex). It was first called “ToCyrillic”, because it only helped with the Cyrillic alphabet, but later it was adapted to many other languages. It allows me to type Russian phonetically, so the Latin ‘b’ is automatically converted to Cyrillic ‘б’, ‘sh’ becomes ‘ш’ etc. It works everywhere in Firefox – websites’ input fields, the address bar, the dialog windows etc.

I couldn’t find anything like it for Chrome. It’s possible that i didn’t look well enough, but the add-ons i did find that claimed to do transliteration, phonetic typing or keyboard emulation either did something completely different or asked me to allow the add-on access my data on all websites and my tabs and browsing activity. I don’t understand why such an add-on would need access to my data and browsing activity – it is only supposed to translate the characters i type into other characters and forget it.

It’s possible that the message that tells me about these privacy implications is over-zealous and the add-ons in question don’t actually breach my privacy, but it is still weird to see them, so i didn’t install them.

So there – i still have a strong reason not to move to Google Chrome. It’s not really Google’s fault. In fact, i could myself develop an extension that does something that i want – the source and the API are open and it’s probably not a lot of work. But why would i waste even a minute of my time doing such a thing if i already have Firefox and its Transliterator add-on that work perfectly well? You could say that Google Chrome is faster and uses less memory; it is not quite true in the first place, and even if it would be true, i wouldn’t care about it, because being able to write the language i want is far more important than minor differences in performance.

As a side note, in some Google websites it’s possible to type in transliteration. However, it works only on these particular sites and needs the machine to be online, because it uses a web service to translate every word. That is weird software design and has rather unacceptable privacy implications.

Wikipedia already has phonetic typing support in Malayalam, Tamil and other languages and soon it is going to be deployed to other languages. It works in-place – it translates the text immediately in the browser letter by letter. Of course, it only works in one website; it would be better to help people to enable their native keyboard layouts rather than do it in only one website, but apparently doing it this way helps people start writing and searching immediately. More details on that soon.