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Getting your locale onto mobile OS

02/04/2016 1 comment

Though I was contemplating “How to waste lifetime” as a title to be honest. If you don’t want to read through the Odyssey part, fair enough, the quick guide on what to do is at the very bottom.mazes_and_labyrinths3b_a_general_account_of_their_history_and_developments_28192229_281459795357929

No, I’m not about to repeat my rant on Detect locale, tempting as that may be. This is about the trek to actually get a locale onto the locales on offer on mobile operating systems like iOS or Android. In the case of Scottish Gaelic, we need to go back all the way to July 2010. I had just been roped into localizing Firefox and we had noticed that the plural rules for Gaelic were either missing or wrong. So in the process of fixing those, it was recommended to me that I also submit them to the Common Locale Data Repository (CLDR). Basically a big holding tank run by the Unicode Consortium for things like plural rules, names of days of the week, month names, whether the month goes before the day etc etc for different locales. Seemed reasonable, so off I go filing a ticket. It took a while but by September 2011, that was in. Yay.

In the meantime, because I had gotten involved with LibreOffice (well, technically speaking OpenOffice first), I also ended up submitting a minimal dataset for Gaelic to CLDR because creating one was a prerequisite for getting a release of LibreOffice and it again was recommended I submit to CLDR so it’s generally available. Fair enough. Took a while figuring out because back then, the handy Survey Tool (basically a graphic interface) didn’t exist – you had to edit an xml file. Yuck. Started in May 2011 and by October, that was done and dusted.

Here’s where I got naive. I thought the “filtering through” of locale data was automatic. I did actually ask a few people and they all thought it was automatic too – though nobody was entirely sure. For most of even the smaller locales such as Welsh and Irish, somebody must have done “it” far enough back for nobody to know where it came from. So October 2011 on, I start watching the list of locales on my Android. Periodically, I’d pop into a mobile phone shop to check the latest models, in case my phone and OS were just too old.

In the meantime, I kept chipping away at the xml file, adding things like language and country names until I had the file relatively complete. Hoping that perhaps there was a completion threshold – even though nobody seemed to know. I started pinging questions as Android aka Google, figuring they were easier to communicate with than Apple. Hah! It’s like standing at one end of the Munich Beer Festival and playing a game of Chinese whispers with someone at the far end. No answer, lots of silence or vague suggestions of “try there”. Spent hours trying to google the answer. Frustratingly, even though I can almost always tease the web into giving me the info I want, not on this occasion. It was as if nobody had ever actually done whatever it was that needed doing to get a new locale to pop up on mobile OS.

I was getting increasingly frustrated/annoyed/angry because up until increasingly, apps were using detect locale to determine the language of one’s UI. Up until Android 4.2, you could use an app to “fake” a locale i.e. I could set it to gd-GB and apps such as Opera Mini would come up in Gaelic. But towards the end of 2012, Google blocked that option. Don’t ask me why…  The upshot was that even those apps which had been localized were now hidden away because Gaelic did not exist as an official locale. Which set me off on the quest to get manual locale selection into FOSS apps but that’s a different story.

To add insult to injury, while I could understand to some extent why Irish would just be “there” as a locale, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Manx of all languages was there, but not Gaelic. I mean, bully for Manx but what gives?

Fast forward to May 2014. CLDR is implementing it’s shiny new Survey Tool and a colleague and I set about filling in the last remaining gaps in the locale data file. Still no Gaelic on Android or iOS, even though the data set was now complete. It wasn’t until August 2014, out of a discussion surrounding the Survey Tool, that someone finally pinned down the problem. Even though we’d had a good enough data set since 2011, this was held “just” in CLDR. It turns out that Android aka Google actually pulls it’s locales and locale data from something called ICU, the International Components for Unicode. So I file a bug on CLDR which someone kindly copymoved to ICU. While not great communicators, at least someone imported the data set from CLDR and it was finally included in the ICU 54 release in October 2014. It had taken more than 4 years to discover what was needed. And then it took less than 4 months to get it into the necessary data bucket. 😒

And even crazier, within weeks of the ticket being closed on ICU, a Gaelic speaking Apple tester excitedly mailed me to tell me that on his test version of iOS 8, Scottish Gaelic was there as a locale. There were a few other minor bumps in the road but with from iOS8, Gaelic was there as a locale and apparently, it made its debut on Android Marshmallow in October 2015. All we have to do now is for people to upgrade to iOS8 (fairly straight forward) and Android Marshmallow (not so straight forward, we’ll probably have to wait for people to physically upgrade their devices).

Ay dios…

So here it is for all those who want their locale on Android, iOS & Co:

  1. Bring some spare time. Assuming a single contributor, it will probably take up to a year to get it to appear on the latest devices if you have perfect timing. More likely, 2 years.
  2. Submit a locale data set to CLDR. You will need a Survey Tool account – and bear in mind there is only ONE submission cycle a year, on the whole. If you missed the current one, I recommend you check out existing data sets because you will have to answer fairly techy questions around date and time formatting, plurals, sort orders and goodness knows what else. Pick a locale similar to your own or at least one for a language you speak and see what that looks like.
    Also check what “coverage level target” your locale has (ask someone at CLDR via a ticket). Some locales have a low target, Gaelic happened to be in “comprehensive” for some reason. Probably not worth arguing which one you’re in and just knuckling down.
  3. File a ticket on ICU to get the data ported over.
  4. Wait and finally, enjoy.
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