08 September 2014

How I became an emoji junky

For a long time I did not care about emoji. But when I was reading Zach Holman's post about abusing emoji in Mac OS X, I realized, there is something new and innovative in emoji. I started to use them more and more and today I even put them into commit messages, tweets and emails.

Technology's influence on writing

It is no surprise, that technology has changed writing all the time in history. Writing on clay tablets required a proper writing system like cuneiform script. Later when people started writing on paper by hand, cursive was invented and allowed a better and obviously faster writing.

Our modern writing systems with block letters and different glyphs in different fonts comes from printing. It allowed people to produce multiple copies of a text and reach more readers. This technical innovation simply changed the standard way of writing from cursive to block letters and printed text.

Digital technology's influence

For some time computers where used to write texts for printing them on paper and even today some people still print there emails 😜. But with the ongoing success of digital technology and the world wide web, this has changed. Today I read books on my Kindle and some of them are never printed on any paper. I communicate with my friends and my family via Whatsapp and all these message are kept digital.

An impact of digitalization of writing on our writing systems is quite normal as it has always been with technical innovations before. Communicating an emotion or an object like a car or a glass of beer with a single colored picture has become very popular with Skype, Twitter or Whatsapp. I am flying from Berlin Schönefeld to Moscow Sheremetyevo is much more to type on a smartphone than just SXF ✈️ SVO.

The innovation of Unicode

The current version 7.0 of the Unicode standard supports 113,021 characters from 123 scripts. Unicode is the number one reason, why people around the world from different nations and different cultures can use smartphones, browse the world wide web or blog about their passions. Unicode has democratized technology more than any other digital innovation.

Until October 2010 the focus of the Unicode Consortium was to bring historical writing systems on digital systems. With version 6.0 this has changed, since the standard got a first set of 722 emoji characters. An additional set of 250 emoji characters was added in version 7.0.

These characters are normal Unicode characters and can be used as any other character in any text. If you send a Whatsapp message with a kissing smiley to your sweetheart today, it will be send as Unicode character U+1F618 (😘).

How far is the industry?

There are two technical ways of supporting Emoji in a system. The simple one is to add a font with glyphs for the characters. This will result in monochrome icons and works without any problems. Microsoft has done this by extending its Segoe UI font, which was introduced as the system font in Windows 7, with emoji characters. Google added its own font for emoji characters in Android 4.1 and Ubuntu users can install the package ttf-ancient-fonts to get emoji characters.

While this approach works pretty well, the monochrome emoji symbols are not very beautiful and expressive. The alternative is to extend fonts with color. Apple was one of the first supporters of emoji at all by adding their Apple Color Emoji font to Mac OS X and iOS. Microsoft has also added a color emoji font to Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but it is only used by its modern DirectWrite API. Google replaced its monochrome emoji font with a colored version in Android 4.4.

Today all mayor systems also provide a way of emoji character input. You can enter emoji characters almost everywhere on iOS, Android (as of 4.4) and Windows Phone via an emoji keyboard, but also on Mac OS X and Windows 8 via an on screen keyboard.

The best browsers are currently Safari and Firefox. Both show native color emoji in web pages on Mac and Windows. Internet Explorer started to use monochrome emojis by default with version 10. But there is still one big problem for safely using emoji on web pages. Google Chrome does not render emoji characters in web pages on Mac and Windows at all. Only on Android it is able to show the new color emoji from Android 4.4.


Emoji is the evolution of human writing 👍! It has already a good adoption in the industry, but there is still a long way to go. As a software developer I care about this. I want my software to be prepared for today's challenges.