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Can Android Support Hebrew Characters?

Published January 7, 2010

Many users and developers of Hebrew smartphone applications are wondering when the Android phones will support Hebrew fonts and locales. If you try to view webpages in Hebrew or run an app with Hebrew characters, you will only see little boxes in place. Honestly, the whole situation is very confusing and I might not even have all the answers right. One question is, what does "support" really mean? Another question is, why isn't there support out of the box. The third question is, what needs to be done to get it working (for the community, not just the individual user)?

It's true that Android as an operating system is open source, so if you're tech savvy enough, you could do almost anything with the system and it would be legal. Not just that, but it does already "support" Hebrew & RTL fonts & locales -- it just doesn't have them. For some reason the persons who package the OS with the phone (companies like T-Mobile & HTC and Verizon & Motorola ) decided not to include these fonts/locales in the system package. Why? Some people think it's because of size constraints -- I heard full Unicode fonts could be 50 megabytes or more in size. Unlike the iPhone, all of the Android phones presently use internal flash memory for system storage, which is limited to 192 or 256 MB (with the G1 and the myTouch, for example). Even if you have a 4 GB SD card, the font must be stored on the small memory space.

If all the phone needs is the font package, why can't a user just click something to download and install it? It's because, for security, the fonts directory (like other system directories on a linux based platform) is read-only. And in order to make that folder writable so you can put your Hebrew font in it, you have to connect it to your computer and run some terminal commands. It's not "hacking" your device, just making a permissions change. Overall it's not very difficult but it will be annoying for non-techies. Furthermore, a future system update from your cell phone provider might overwrite the fonts directory because it doesn't know about your modification.

There is a discussion in the Android Issue Tracker requesting Hebrew characters in fonts. The only reply so far by a Googler was by jbq in Dec 2008: "A concern here is that fonts that include many scripts tend to be large, but storage space is scarce on current devices." But there are about 50 issues with more popularity (based on number of people who applied a star to it) than this one, so they definitely have their work cut out for them. And it's a tough game especially when you're not making a single cent of profit from it directly.

So when will Android have Hebrew? Choose one:
1. When Android OS packagers include full global font support on phones (won't happen until internal memory increases on future models)
2. When Android OS packagers allow the customer to choose which font languages they would like on their phone, either at purchase time or through a custom made app -- Rumor has it that new Android phones in Israel come with Hebrew fonts (why wouldn't they).
3. When the Android OS team implements an easy way for phone users to install fonts that they want, without needing to worry about running terminal commands or system update overrides.
4. When the Android OS team implements a way to store and run fonts from the SD card so the system memory won't run out.

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Michael Butler

Michael Butler

Michael joined the RustyBrick team in 2008 to focus on transitioning existing web sites to new & enhanced platforms. He graduated from Rutgers University in 2005 and holds a B.S. in Computer Science.

This article is under Java Programming, Mobile

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