The ISO / Unicode Merger
An Interview with Ed Hart *
Conducted by Laura Wideburg ** on
October 16, 1995
“I worked on a position paper for Share Inc. We were working on
ASCII and EBCDIC. The IBM version had 95 characters, 3 were not in
ASCII and vice versa. There were problems just converting between
these two sets. At that time there was 7-bit ISO 646, and they were
all country specific. There were 3 different versions for Switzerland.
In 1991 you had ISO 10646 and Unicode 1.0. Both codes wanted to be
the one code. They were also incompatible, so the translation between
the codes would be impossible. For instance, you had the floating
diacritics in Unified CJK. There were different ways of encoding, and
so round-trip integrity was in question. Both 10646 and Unicode were
going full bore. Several companies were already going Unicode.
Governments were deciding which standard to choose as their standard.
I realized that two standards may exist and there’d be attempts to
make round-trip conversion. Our main concern in SHARE was round-trip
integrity. We had all these problems in the US with just 6 characters.
What kind of problems would you have with 65 000? I termed it a
disaster and got people’s attention.
In September 1990, I got a call from Isai [Isai Scheinberg, IBM's
representative to Unicode]. He asked, “What are we going to do about
it? How is SHARE going to vote on the [10646-DIS 1] ballot?”
I knew there were good reasons for choosing Unicode, but also good
reasons for choosing ISO. I really didn’t know which one would be
One of the SHARE members called me. “This isn’t an academic
question. It will take millions of dollars to install. The conversion
is expensive, the storage is expensive, and the memory is expensive.”
Multi-byte code was just not academic.
So we went out to the SHARE membership. Isai and Monty [???] sent
out a survey about the two codes. Do you need a standard? Which one
would you choose? Or both? Or a combination of the two?”
We had Mike Ksar, Masami Hasegawa [Editor of 10646], Lee Collins
[Unicode's Han-Unification Expert] and Ken Whistler describe the
We had 13% participation in the survey. We had 260,000 members,
many Fortune 500 companies. Many people didn’t vote because they felt
they didn’t know enough about the technical issues. But one thing was
clear. They wanted just one standard.
We wrote a summary paper with bar charts, and we sent it to ISO and
probably to Unicode as well.
In May, ISO [JTC1/SC2/WG2] was going to meet in San Francisco. This
was the perfect spot to discuss a merger. I brought it up to Jerry
Andersen. Mike Ksar had just been elected convener of the ISO group
and was concerned about doing his job correctly. Jerry and I talked
about the merger every week. I wanted to go for the merger at ISO, but
Mike said as soon as ISO was over, we could use the H-P facilities
afterwards, and “Ed, why don’t you lead the discussion?”
It was like trying to get the Hatfields and McCoys together. I
prayed about it, I can tell you. I talked to my manager about it. We
realized that we couldn’t even begin to talk about a merger until
there was trust created between the two parties. We had to build the
trust, even while appearing to make progress on the technical issues.
Jerry made an announcement, and put the merger on the table. My
goal was to pull it together. I was neutral, I didn’t care whether it
was Unicode or ISO and that gave me some advantage.
First, I went out just with Unicode. I meet Lee, Joe and Isai. I’m
not sure I met Mark then, but maybe not until the actual meeting.
The next night, I went out with Mike, Jerry and Hasegawa.
Both groups said the same thing: “We don’t trust ‘em.”
At IBM, we had people in both camps, and the IBM corporate
direction had to be set. If we pulled off the merger, IBM would buy
The ISO meeting broke up on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday
afternoon, I started with some trust building exercises. I only
allowed one person to speak at a time. First we had a spokesperson
describe: “Why we did it this way”. Ken spoke for Unicode, Jerry for
ISO. Really, 10646 was more big-frame, and Unicode was more
workstation. A big issue was how wide the code was. ISO said, 8, 16,
24 or 32. Unicode said 16, period. We got over that one.
We went back and forth and I said, “Give me an advantage from the
other person’s scheme.” So this way, they better understood each other
technically and each side gained credibility.
At one in the afternoon on Thursday, I said, “It’s time to talk
about a merger.” I asked questions, “What is the shape of 16-bit? Are
you going to reserve space for control characters? How many characters
are you going to include?” The number of characters would determine
how big a player Unicode was going to be.
Willy Bohn from IBM in Germany said, “So, why don’t we just go with
65 000 characters?” Another ISO guy said, “Do you know what you just
Isai volunteered to investigate control characters, and we had
about 5 other issues.
On Friday, Jaing said, “You’ll have this for me tomorrow.” I spent
the night until 3 a.m. finishing the minutes!
At that meeting, we (one) built trust (two) respected each other
and (three) had agreement on five issues.
We published the minutes and had them distributed. So many
countries voted asking for a merger. Now how to handle this merger?
Europe would be a real mess. Their idea was, “They have just a
bunch of independent cowboys out there.” Avery [Bishop] called me. “We
don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” I said, “If we don’t try,
we’ll have even less of a chance.”
In the end, it was a success. There was a real incentive to have
just one code. Really, it was a common sense thing. Once people put
aside their egos and realized the other side also had reasonable
people, it went fine. We had a rational, professional discussion. I
remember Mark was at those meetings.
Now how are we going to get ISO to ratify it in Geneva? Could we
keep the same feeling we had in San Francisco? There were lots of
people in Europe who didn’t like Unicode. We had an ad hoc meeting in
the morning, and people continued to respect what the other side had
to say. There were lots of informal discussions over coffee. Mark was
calm and deliberate and respectful, and I think that that had a lot to
do with Unicode’s acceptance. If he’d been smart-alecky, it would have
failed. The way he came across, the Europeans just had to respect him.
So we worked through several issues. Masami brought in some
documents which had already accounted for a merger, and he got some
flack for that. So I don’t think that they were distributed as
After the October meeting in Paris, we had a working group meeting
under subcommittee 2 (SC2). WG2 was worried about technical issues.
One of our goals was to produce a draft for the ballot. We resolved
the comments and went to the next level.
In Paris, there were no showstoppers, and we got approval for the
merger. Meanwhile, Unicode published their book, and in the book they
mentioned they were discussing a merger with ISO 10646.
Eventually we had the merger. Unicode 1.1 and ISO were conformed.
As for my role, I saw myself more as a facilitator, getting the
merger started. People realized that they could come to an agreement.
I remember the first time they came to an agreement, and I took a
break and I said, “Yes!”
If the people hadn’t been willing to come together, it never would
have happened. And like I said, I did A LOT of praying.
* Ed Hart - The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics
Mr. Hart is a senior engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied
Physics Laboratory where he coordinates networking for the Computing
Systems Group. Prior to this, he worked as a systems programmer at
Bell Telephone Laboratories. He has a BES in EE from the Johns Hopkins
University, an MS in EE from Columbia University, and a MS in Computer
Science from the Johns Hopkins University.
Since 1990, he has represented SHARE Inc., an association of IBM
customers, to the US L2 technical standards committee for codes and
character sets. There he served as the vice-chairman and later the
chairman. While vice- chairman, in 1991 he facilitated the first
discussion between the Unicode Consortium and ISO, and represented the
US at subsequent discussions. These talks led to an agreement to merge
ISO/IEC 10646 and Unicode. Since 1994, he has represented SHARE Inc.
to the Unicode Technical Committee. Mr. Hart was co-editor of the ISO
Technical Report, ISO/IEC TR 15285, "An operational model for
characters and glyphs" on which this presentation is based.
** This interview is printed with permission from the interviewer.
© Laura Wideburg 1998. It may not be reprinted without Wideburg's
All other material is ©Unicode, Inc. 1998 and may be reprinted, for
purposes of educational or press releases. Any other reprinting
requires permission of the Unicode Consortium, which can be reached at