[fpc-pascal] Yet another thread on Unicode Strings

Tony Whyman tony.whyman at mccallumwhyman.com
Wed Oct 4 14:10:02 CEST 2017

Unicode Character String handling is a question that keeps coming up on 
the Free Pascal Mailing lists and, empirically, it is hard to avoid the 
conclusion that there is something wrong with the way these character 
string types are handled. Otherwise, why does this issue keep arising?

Supporters of the current implementation point to the rich set of 
functions available to handle both UTF-8 and UTF-16 in addition to 
legacy ANSI code pages. That is true – but it may be that it is also the 
problem. The programmer is too often forced to be aware of how strings 
are encoded and must make a choice as to which is the preferred 
character encoding for their program. There then follows confusion over 
how to make that choice. Is Delphi compatibility the goal? What 
Languages must I support? If I want platform independence which is the 
best encoding? Which encoding gives the best performance for my 
algorithm? And so on.

Another problem is that there is no character type for a Unicode 
Character. The built-in type “WideChar” is only two bytes and cannot 
hold a UTF-16 code point comprising two surrogate pairs. There is no 
char type for a UTF-8 character and, while UCS4Char exists, the Lazarus 
UTF-8 utilities use “cardinal” as the type for a code point (not exactly 
strong typing).

In order to stop all this confusion I believe that there has to be a 
return to Pascal's original fundamental concept. That is the value of a 
character type represents a character, while the encoding of the 
character is platform dependent and a choice the compiler makes and not 
the programmer. Likewise a character string is an array of characters 
that can be indexed by character (not byte) number, from which 
substrings can be selected and compared with other strings according to 
the locale and the unicode standard collating sequence. Let the 
programmer worry about the algorithm and the compiler worry about the 
best implementation.

I want to propose a new character type called “UniChar” - short for 
Unicode Character, along with a new string type “UniString” and a new 
collection “TUniStrings”. I have presented my thoughts here in a 
detailed paper

see https://mwasoftware.co.uk/docs/unistringproposal.pdf

This is intended to be a fully worked proposal and I have circulated it 
to provoke discussion and in the hope that it may be useful.

The intent is to create a character and string handling design that is 
natural to use with the programmer rarely if ever having to think about 
the character or string encoding. They are dealing with Unicode 
Characters and strings of Unicode Characters and that is all. When 
necessary, transliteration happens naturally and as a consequence of 
string concatenation, input/output, or in the rare cases when 
performance demands a specific character encoding.

There is also a strong desire to avoid creating more choice and hence 
more confusion. The intent is to “embrace and replace”. Both AnsiString 
and UnicodeString should be seen as subsets or special cases of the 
proposed UniString, and with concrete types such as AnsiChar, WideChar 
and WideString, other than for legacy reasons, existing primarily to 
define external interfaces.

Tony Whyman

MWA Software

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