iPad's Traditional Chinese Question

Many Taiwanese users, and I believe many Hong Kong users too, will wonder how iPad could be a useful device at all. Apple states on its tech specs that the initially supported languages include English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Simplified Chinese and Russian. There is no Traditional Chinese.

Language support is a topic on its own in modern operating system. It is mainly about three things:

  1. Text display and localization (font, layout support, system and application messages)
  2. Input method (keyboard layout, keystroke-to-text conversion)
  3. Natural language processing (text correction, text-to-speech, voice recognition, information discovery, indexing)

When an Apple device supports a language, it's mostly full support of 1. and 2., and varying degree of 3. On Mac OS X 10.6, for example, Traditional Chinese is supported with fonts, localized menus and messages. OS X also has a few Traditional Chinese input methods. It doesn't have spelling checker for the language, but it has some natural language processing capability on which the input methods and system-wide indexing (Spotlight) rely.

It's curious why iPad does not come with Traditional Chinese support in its current version while it does Simplified Chinese. Perhaps it's not yet fully localized, or perhaps the input methods are not ready yet. Curious, then—since Simplified Chinese is there, and Apple can just use the same code base that is used in iPhone and iPod touch. But on the other hand, iPhone did not come with appropriate Traditional and Simplified Chinese until OS 2.0, and a lot of other languages now available on iPhone (Korean and Hebrew, to name just two) are not supported on iPad yet.

Psychologically, however, this gives iPad a bad impression to Traditional Chinese users. Many American companies made this terrible mistake assuming that Traditional Chinese can make do with Simplified Chinese interface. It's true that most of us can read the latter without any problem, just like an American English user can read the original British edition of Harry Potter with hardly any difficulty. But being able to read is different from wanting to read. Simplified Chinese has a vastly different vocabulary, especially in computer terms. Font and rendering preferences differ, too.

I sincerely hope Apple does not think that way, although Apple's track record is not stellar. It messed up its new Traditional Chinese font, Hei TC, that practically renders the font unusable in design and publishing. iPhone is also shipped with that defective font. You can bet that many of us do not feel confident in Apple's way of doing things, let alone its perceived priority, when it comes to Traditional Chinese.

Even if the next version of iPad's OS supports Traditional Chinese (and hopefully with the Hei TC problem repaired), a bigger question looms: Which input methods will it include? The Traditional Chinese landscape is not like the Simplified Chinese one, where Pinyin is taught in school and covers 95% of the user base. In Taiwan, pupils are taught the Bopomofo phonetic system, a kana-like set of symbols that represent Mandarin Chinese sounds. About 80% of users in Taiwan use that. There are a number of other input methods. In Hong Kong, where (so I've been told) only college students take elective Cantonese romanization classes, component-based input methods like Cangjei is more popular.

The iPhone has three Traditional Chinese input methods: handwriting, Pinyin and Bopomofo. All three are finely implemented but not outstanding to say the least. The problem being this: You don't write much on the iPhone. You tweet, send SMS, keep some notes, compose one-liner emails, and that's pretty much all. I can live with slow input methods on the iPhone. But imagine using that with Pages on iPad? It's going to be like having your fingers chopped.

The biggest problem, though, is that there will be no alternative to iPad's built-in input methods even if comes with what iPhone has now. If you aren't satisfied with Mac's input methods, you can install a third party package. On iPhone OS there is no such thing. Yes, there are jailbreak input methods, and I know many people who jailbreak solely for the damned input method, but jailbreak is never mainstream and not a reliable way to solve a problem that Apple should tackle.

When I say "a problem that Apple should tackle", I don't mean that Apple should try to solve everything. It excels in the fields it knows the best, but it has weakness in others. As much as Apple does not make every app on the App Store, it should let other developers solve the problem for the platform.

I can see why Apple might not love to open up input method on iPhone. I've actually had discussions with many people in this field since late 2007. Text input component can exercise a lot of control over the system, especially if it lives in your app's address space. There are inherent security problems too.

But, once again, Mac OS X has shown us that the problem can be overcome, and even iPhone OS has a solution for providing a limited kind of third-party service. Since Mac OS X 10.5, the new input method architecture is based on Objective-C Distributed Objects (DO), which is a high-level mechanism of inter-process communication. Input method modules are no longer attached as a loaded plug-in and can only receive what the OS allows them to know. Suppose there is a kind of "Settings" bundle that functions like that. Mac OS X also employs some watchdog mechanism (which is vastly improved in 10.6) to ensure that those special processes do not block or crash the system, and a similar kind of watchdog can be put into iPhone OS to make sure that input method modules behave.

The question is whether Apple is willing to do it, or does it really think, like many multinationals, that Traditional Chinese users can make do.