Re: CHARSET considerations

Steve Summit <scs@adam.mit.edu> Fri, 14 May 1993 21:36 UTC

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Date: Fri, 14 May 93 17:29:24 -0400
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From: Steve Summit <scs@adam.mit.edu>
To: TROTH@ricevm1.rice.edu, pine-info@cac.washington.edu
Subject: Re: CHARSET considerations
In-Reply-To: <9305121752.AA00650@dimacs.rutgers.edu>
Cc: ietf-822@dimacs.rutgers.edu, ietf-charsets@innosoft.com, dan@ees1a0.engr.ccny.cuny.edu, scs@adam.mit.edu
Reply-To: ietf-charsets@innosoft.com, scs@adam.mit.edu

In <9305121752.AA00650@dimacs.rutgers.edu>du>, Rick wrote:
>         Any user of Pine 3.05 (and as far as I can tell 3.07 or 2.x)
> can shoot themself in the foot  (head if you prefer)  by setting
> character-set = Zeldas_private_codepage.

This is almost certainly a bad idea, especially if (as Rick
implied in another part of the referenced message) the user can do
so by setting a default charset value in a user configuration file
somewhere.  (If users dink with the message headers themselves,
all bets are off.)

> Should the Pine developers remove this feature?

I'm not sure what the feature in question is, but if it's
something which lets users specify the value to be sent out as the
MIME Content-Type: charset, I think it's a bad idea, and should be
removed or significantly altered.

An easy mistake to make (I speak from experience) is to assume
that the charset parameter on a MIME Content-Type: line encodes
the character set used by the entity composing the message, or
the character set to be used by the entity displaying the
message. I find that the best way to think about charset is that
it is *neither*.  charset is an octet-based encoding used during
message transfer; it need bear no relation to the composing or
viewing character sets.  In the most general case, a message will
be composed using some native character set, translated
automatically to a MIME-registered charset, and translated at the
other end into a native display character set.  It should be more
likely that the charset value be selected by an automaton, not by
a human.

(If anyone finds the above paragraph startling, you're welcome to
write to me for clarification.  I'm not going to prolong this
message with additional explanations right now.)

It's not necessarily *wrong* to think of charset as having
something to do with the composing or viewing character set (in
many cases, not coincidentally, all three will be identical), but
it is very easy to make conceptual mistakes, implement
nonconformant software, or just generally misunderstand how MIME
is supposed to work if you don't explicitly separate in your mind
the concepts of composing/viewing character sets and transmission
charsets.  (You'll notice that I reinforce this distinction in my
own head and in this message by using the terms "character set"
and "charset" noninterchangeably.)

The charset situation is much like the canonical CRLF situation:
the fact that the canonical representation is identical to some
but not all of the available local representations guarantees
misunderstandings.

To be sure, automated selection of and translation to a registered
MIME charset is a non-trivial task, and mailers which are trying
to adopt MIME right away cannot be faulted for deferring
development of such functionality for a while.  However, just
letting users specify non-default, non-7-bit-US-ASCII, (non-MIME)
charsets is an open invitation to misunderstanding and
noninteroperability.

For now, composition agents which wish to allow users to use
extended character sets (such as Latin-1), but which elect to
relegate character set and/or charset selection to the user,
should either present the user with a menu of registered MIME
charsets from which to select (presumably it will be up to the
user to ensure that the editor or composition tool is actually
using a character set corresponding to the selected charset), or
(in the case of what it sounds like PINE is doing) at least filter
the user's open-ended charset selection against the list of
registered values (and perhaps also the X- pattern).

I've copied this message to the IETF character sets mailing list
(ietf-charsets@innosoft.com, subscription requests to
ietf-charsets-request@innosoft.com); any followup traffic should
be sent there, and *not* to the ietf-822 list.

					Steve Summit
					scs@adam.mit.edu

P.S. to pine-info@cac.washington.edu: despite my e-mail address,
I'm actually in Seattle, near UW.  I'd be glad to stop by one day
and talk with you guys in person about this stuff.