Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world's writing systems. Developed in conjunction with the Universal Character Set standard and published in book form as The Unicode Standard, the latest version of Unicode consists of a repertoire of more than 109,000 characters covering 93 scripts, a set of code charts for visual reference, an encoding methodology and set of standard character encodings, an enumeration of character properties such as upper and lower case, a set of reference data computer files, and a number of related items, such as character properties, rules for normalization, decomposition, collation, rendering, and bidirectional display order (for the correct display of text containing both right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew, and left-to-right scripts).
The Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit organization that coordinates Unicode's development, has the ambitious goal of eventually replacing existing character encoding schemes with Unicode and its standard Unicode Transformation Format (UTF) schemes, as many of the existing schemes are limited in size and scope and are incompatible with multilingual environments.
Unicode's success at unifying character sets has led to its widespread and predominant use in the internationalization and localization of computer software. The standard has been implemented in many recent technologies, including XML, the Java programming language, the Microsoft .NET Framework, and modern operating systems.
Unicode can be implemented by different character encodings. The most commonly used encodings are UTF-8 (which uses one byte for any ASCII characters, which have the same code values in both UTF-8 and ASCII encoding, and up to four bytes for other characters), the now-obsolete UCS-2 (which uses two bytes for each character but cannot encode every character in the current Unicode standard), and UTF-16 (which extends UCS-2 to handle code points beyond the scope of UCS-2).
Unicode has the explicit aim of transcending the limitations of traditional character encodings, such as those defined by the ISO 8859 standard, which find wide usage in various countries of the world, but remain largely incompatible with each other. Many traditional character encodings share a common problem in that they allow bilingual computer processing (usually using Latin characters and the local script), but not multilingual computer processing (computer processing of arbitrary scripts mixed with each other).
Unicode, in intent, encodes the underlying characters — graphemes and grapheme-like units — rather than the variant glyphs (renderings) for such characters. In the case of Chinese characters, this sometimes leads to controversies over distinguishing the underlying character from its variant glyphs (see Han unification).
In text processing, Unicode takes the role of providing a unique code point — a number, not a glyph — for each character. In other words, Unicode represents a character in an abstract way and leaves the visual rendering (size, shape, font, or style) to other software, such as a web browser or word processor. This simple aim becomes complicated, however, because of concessions made by Unicode's designers in the hope of encouraging a more rapid adoption of Unicode.
The first 256 code points were made identical to the content of ISO 8859-1 so as to make it trivial to convert existing western text. Many essentially-identical characters were encoded multiple times at different code points to preserve distinctions used by legacy encodings and therefore, allow conversion from those encodings to Unicode (and back) without losing any information. For example, the "fullwidth forms" section of code points encompasses a full Latin alphabet that is separate from the main Latin alphabet section. In Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK) fonts, these characters are rendered at the same width as CJK ideographs, rather than at half the width. For other examples, see Duplicate characters in Unicode.
The origins of Unicode date back to 1987, when Joe Becker from Xerox and Lee Collins and Mark Davis from Apple started investigating the practicalities of creating a universal character set. In August 1988, Joe Becker published a draft proposal for an "international/multilingual text character encoding system, tentatively called Unicode." explaining the etymology of the term as:
The name "Unicode" is intended to suggest a unique, unified, universal encoding.
In this document, entitled Unicode 88, he outlined a 16 bit character model:
Unicode is intended to address the need for a workable, reliable world text encoding. Unicode could be roughly described as "wide-body ASCII" that has been stretched to 16 bits to encompass the characters of all the world's living languages. In a properly engineered design, 16 bits per character are more than sufficient for this purpose.
His original 16 bit design was based on the assumption that only those scripts and characters in modern use would need to be encoded:
Unicode gives higher priority to ensuring utility for the future than to preserving past antiquities. Unicode aims in the first instance at the characters published in modern text (e.g. in the union of all newspapers and magazines printed in the world in 1988), whose number is undoubtedly far below 214 = 16,384. Beyond those modern-use characters, all others may be defined to be obsolete or rare; these are better candidates for private-use registration than for congesting the public list of generally-useful Unicodes.
In early 1989, the Unicode working group expanded to include Ken Whistler and Mike Kernaghan of Metaphor, Karen Smith-Yoshimura and Joan Aliprand of RLG, and Glenn Wright of Sun Microsystems, and in 1990 Michel Suignard and Asmus Freytag from Microsoft and Rick McGowan of NeXT joined the group. By the end of 1990, most of the work on mapping existing character encoding standards had been completed, and a final review draft of Unicode was ready. The Unicode consortium was incorporated on January 3, 1991, in the state of California, and in October 1991, the first volume of the Unicode standard was published. The second volume, covering Han ideographs, was published in June 1992.
In 1996, a surrogate character mechanism was implemented in Unicode 2.0, so that Unicode was no longer restricted to 16 bits. This increased the Unicode codespace to over a million code points, which allowed for the encoding of many historic scripts (e.g. Egyptian Hieroglyphs) and thousands of rarely-used or obsolete characters that had not been anticipated as needing encoding.