Ogonki i komputery - an alternative story on Polish tails

1. Background 1980-ies.

Polish language has some special characters: ±, ę, ź, ³, ó, ¶, æ, ¼. Texts without them look badly and are not always easy to understand at once, to exclude misunderstandings.

Age of microcomputers has started: small computers became popular tool not only in scientific data processing centers. First machines for games have appeared even at homes and first machines were introduced into accountancy systems.

Poland was enlisted among dangerous countries to which it was not allowed to sell western advanced technology. Therefore great, very profitable official smuggling industry has developped, with grown some nice fortunes as result. Poland had one factory producing own computers and this factory has introduced their style of coding of Polish letters. Then smugglers/ importers adapters/ hackers of smuggled computers and software developed various standards for each brand.

The cheapest source of smuggle was in Far East: Taiwan, Korea, etc. As result, american keyboard (the cheapest type!) layout became accepted standard in Poland, even if it seemed, there was no Polish special characters in it.

Why there was no unification? At this time there were no winning standards. Winners started emerging in late 80-ties / early 90-ties.

2. Pre-monopoly time early 90-ties.

American Standard of coding letters was enlarged to cover the accented letters in West European languages.

IBM has released PC architecture for open market production, and the biggest mass production for Far East and American markets was with system based on various mutual compatible DOSes. PC computer with DOS became the most popular computer platform. However, none of them has offered support for Polish specific letters, so Polish programmers / hackers had to solve this problem by creating set of screen, keyboard and printers drivers for work in Polish language.

Many another platforms and their standards lost their importance, however Polish konverting programs are up to now in use for at least 15 "standards" of Polish letters coding.

The first really winning standard was little adapted popular code page 850, altered as little, as was possible, named Mazovia, later CP620. Replacements for Polish users substituted similar looking accented letters, so every text was quite readable even without specific Polish language screen drivers, but from another hand side, use of western (American!) software was still possible.

Keyboard drivers usually offered possibility to enter specific Polish letter by combination of function key and main letter. Somebody would ask, why not to use more convenient layout, with Polish letters "on top"?

There were two answers:

Finaly Poland was erased from the "black list", probably mainly because of software industry demands, which could see money to take.

3. Microsoft is coming: 1993 and later

Microsoft in their MSDOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 offered support for Polish letters from inside the system. Beautiful, yes?

But - it has come with another, new standard of coding Polish letters for DOS (CP-852 or PC Latin-2) and Windows (CP-1250). For people used to convert everything between everything it was no big problem to add new "standards" to their converters.

Problem came while studying gift from Microsoft: any layout of any typing machine, probably even according to any Polish Norm, which was never seriously followed by factories was introduced into system as so called "Polish keyboard driver", which should make proffessional typists happy.

It was not accepted or was unknown, that Polish office users had experience with american keyboard layout from pre-computer age: in all telexes and telegraphs.

So suddenly into in majority american keyboards came so called "Polish layout", which made only problems for people, who look at a key before pressing it. As result, programmers / hackers produced many ways, how to get rid of this driver. The main conclusion was: just to ignore it and it would work, especially, that in Windows there was alternative to automaticaly installed "Polish layout": it was "Polish programmers layout" with Polish specific letters input by combination of "Left Alt" and main letter.

However Russian computer users did not succeed as Polish did: Microsoft Russian keyboard layout based also on any typewriter is completely different then american one. Handling Russian and another languages programs is extremely complicated. Here also telex office experience was ignored but computer users were not enough strong to reject bad solution.

So, among DOS users, the most popular standard was Mazovia and CP-852, while in Windows CP-1250 only was used.

4. World outside Microsoft and internet.

MacIntosh computers were not very popular in Poland, mainly were used in printshops and by some journalists, because they were expensive. So, as before, one more coding standard to our converter and we could finish here.

World of Unix at the beginning ignored question of coding of specific Polish letters. Information for printer or program, that something has to be done was marked sometimes by "/" and main letters, or similar way.

Finally, Unix world around 1996 it has accepted ISO-8859-2 (ISO Latin-2) for coding Polish letters. It would be only one more standard to our converter, if not explosion of the internet, which is based on Unixes.

At the beginning, when internet was mainly for text and scientific users, Polish letters were just ignored in e-mail and in web pages. There was no need to fight with them, while there was no software handling them properly. To make everything clear for possible future text proceesing "/" and main letters became standard solution.

But, new web authoring and browsing software appeared, and more WWW pages were posted and read. Some people tried to solve question of multiplatform and multistandard expression of Polish letters, to make them readable from any computer. There were attempts to express special letters by decriptive code as "oacute" for example, usualy enforced by WYSWIG web editor for English language zone use. Expression of Polish letter by its numeric equivalent did not work properly, because western language zone web browsers picked numeric equivalent usually from ISO-8859-1 page, and garbage was presented as result or just the HTML code.

Many well maintained sites offer their resources with possibility of converting between different standards, including the "tailless" one. Such solution demand writing text with special characters directly in any standard, but without HTML coding special attempts, and then to apply converting scripts in the web server.

So, it has came idea, to introduce marking of coding standard used by the page author, to let new generation browser adapt automatically or manually.

For Polish language two strong standards are fighting in the Web now: Windows CE CP-1250 with its Microsoft power and Unix ISO-Latin-2, supported by official Polish Standard. The most popular browsers accepted them two, however, there is constant pressure towards the ISO-8859-2, as international official multiplatform standard. Web pages authors are highly recommanded to mark coding standard inside head of each page, to let browser adjust characters set automaticaly. Web authors writing outside Unixes may use ISO fonts, which are free to get in the internet or from disks of good computer magazines.

What about the "Polish computer keyboard"? I have not seen any for whole of my life, but I have heared, that any computer company produced some and scrapped most of them.

5. Unicode

Unicode has come to normal, innocent (Windows) users together with Microsoft Office 97. New problems with interchangeability of files have appeared, but from another hand side, really multilanguage texts are possible now and real interchangeability is possible.
There is only one problem for user: older systems will have to be upgraded or replaced by new ones. However, for computer industry it means bright future: new boxes, processors, memory, graphic cards, software.


Basia 26.04.2003

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