Typing French Diacritical Accents in Google Docs

After our recent move to the Google cloud and all the services within it like Docs and Gmail, our Languages department have had to face a few new challenges. We teach several different languages here at PLC Sydney and many of them requires the use of special characters. French, for example, uses accented characters like é, è, ç, å and so on. Prior to the move to Google, our language teachers knew all the various keyboard shortcuts to enter these characters into a program like Word or Outlook, and life was good.

After the move to Gmail and Docs however, these same keyboard shortcuts no longer worked, making the potential move to Google Docs seem like a bad idea for language teaching. “It’s ridiculous that Google Docs can’t do such basic things when it’s so easy in Word and Outlook” was the general consensus.

Searching for a solution online revealed that we were not the only ones who were struggling with this issue. Lots of people were complaining about the poor diacritical mark support in Google Docs. “If Google Docs is ever to be a credible alternative to Office, they really need to fix this!”

After Googling around for a solution, the suggested workarounds were (in my opinion) unsatisfactory from a user perspective (and hence me taking the time to write this blog post… hopefully this might be helpful to someone else trying to solve the same problem). The suggestions were…

Technique 1: Use the Insert > Special Characters option in Docs. Not only is this method really messy and cumbersome, it doesn’t solve the problem of typing a message in Gmail, where inserting special characters is not an option.  Not useful.

Technique 2: Use Alt Codes… basically you hold down the Alt key and type the 3 or 4 digit code for the character you want. Apart from being an extremely engineering focused solution rather than a user experience focused one, the Alt Codes only worked when using the numbers on the numeric keypad of a keyboard, and not when using the numbers from the top row of the keyboard. Given that almost our entire school userbase uses laptop computers, this would have involved typing Funtion+NumLock to turn the numeric keypad on, then holding down Alt while typing the 3 or 4 digit code, then typing Function + NumLock again to turn the regular keyboard back on.  That’s 8 or 9 keystrokes to type a single character! Hardly an elegant solution.

Both of these “solutions” were unacceptable to me.  I could not seriously expect a user to go to all this hassle just to type a single character, and in any piece of French text there were likely to be many of these characters needed.  The fact that Google Docs was so crippled in this regard was very annoying.

Then I tweeted about it, asking if anyone had a solution to the problem of typing these diacritical marks. Alex Guenther replied to say that it worked fine and it was really easy on a Mac, just type Option + the letter. I tried it on a nearby Mac and yes, of course it worked… right there in my open Google Doc!

Hang on… if the Mac can type these characters into the Google Doc, then it can’t be a problem with Google Docs. The problem has to be with the way the text input to Google Docs is being implemented within Windows itself.  As it turns out, the fact that we used to be able to use Windows keyboard shortcuts for these characters in Office applications, but now not in GoogleDocs, had nothing at all to do with the change to GoogleDocs… it seems that the Windows shortcuts won’t work in ANY environment outside of Microsoft’s own Office tools. The Mac, on the other hand, handles the text input for characters at the operating system level, not the application level… which is far more sensible.

Ah ha! The penny dropped… If that’s the case, maybe we just need to get something like TextExpander, a neat tool for the Mac that allows you to create customised, system-wide keyboard shortcuts. Once you define your shortcuts you just type those few keys and the text expands out to reveal the full version of the text… so, for example, a shortcut such as “ilu” could be defined to expand out as “I love you”, and be implemented at the system level and therefore work using ANY application on the computer.

Something like that might solve the problem… if we could have a system-wide keyboard shortcut that took a set of simple user-defined keystrokes like a` and converted them to à, would solve the problem nicely.  Unfortunately, TextExpander is only for the Mac.

A quick search using [windows equivalent of textexpander] turned up this article from LifeHacker which mentioned a Windows alternative called Texter. Even better, it is an  GPL licenced tool, so it’s free! We installed it and after adding a whole collection of French keyboard shortcuts, it works a treat!   We can now open a Google Doc, or any other application, and the shortcuts work nicely.  They can be a wee bit laggy at times, but the important thing is they work!

So, if you’re a Windows user who needs to enter French diacritical marks in Google Docs (or any other web application) the best solution seems to be to use a text expander style program to create customised keyboard shortcuts that work on the system level.

Here’s the interesting kicker to this story… In my initial frustration of thinking this was a Google Docs problem, I sent off a support ticket to Google’s eSupport team, complaining that not being able to enter accented characters into their software was a problem that needed to be addressed but thinking that, realistically, nothing would come of it. After all, this is Google right? The big faceless behemoth that worships the cult of the algorithm.

Over the next hour or so we worked out the solution using Texter mentioned above and realised that it was Windows that was the cuplrit, not Docs. But imagine my surprise when I got a call from Nicholas, a Francophone Google employee in Montreal Canada, who was calling me directly to help sort out our problem. We chatted for a while about the various options and I explained to him what we eventually did, but simply getting a call directly from the Big G was quite the surprise.

Sorry for blaming you Google Docs. ilu.

 Image from http://ilovetypography.com/2008/10/03/diacritical-challenge/

Unknown Error

This cracked me up. And reminded me yet again of how lucky I am to be a Mac user…


If you have eyes like mine, click to enlarge.

Such a thing as a Free Lunch

Vista Launch Toronto Vista Launch Toronto Vista Launch Toronto Vista Launch Toronto

Dear Mr Gates,

Is it OK if I call you Bill? I feel like I know you so well, I’ve been using your company’s products for so many years now. I can’t say that I was there from the beginning, but I did start using Windows way back at version 3.0. (I’m told that’s probably a good thing, since Windows 1.0 and 2.0 were a bit of a joke apparently.) But since Windows 3.0 I’ve been right there with you man! I went through Windows 3.1, then WfW (remember that one? OMG, what were you thinking?)

Windows 95 came along at about the same time as my daughter was born, in fact the hospital where she was born gave away a free copy of Windows 95 to every child born that special August day when you went on stage to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”! My daughter was born a few days too early and I missed out (I’ve not forgiven her for that yet Bill) but hey, what a brilliant piece of marketing! And not at all tacky, like some people said it was!

Anyway since then, I’ve faithfully followed you and you loyal Microsofties through all the various versions of Windows – 98, 98SE, then ME, 2000, NT, XP, XPSP1, XPSP2 (to hell with those people who complain about the long times between releases… service packs count! Don’t they realise that fixing all those bugs and security holes takes a lot of work?)

But Bill… Oh Bill, what happened? I went to the launch of Vista today in Toronto, and I can’t believe it’s finally all over between us! I kept hearing the word “innovation” but where was it hiding? I kept hearing your people – our people, Bill – talking about this new Vista operating system and how it would revolutionise my corporate computing experience, and how it would make it so much easier to meet organisational goals and to collaborate across the enterprise. But Bill, I don’t want to do that stuff. I just want a computer that makes my life easier! I don’t care about being 37% more efficient when I send updated figures to Steve in Marketing, or sharing a PowerPoint deck with Jane in HR. I hardly ever need to reschedule a product planning meeting with people in the Boston office… Have you forgotten about me Bill? I don’t care about all that stuff… I’m an educator Bill! I just want a tool that can let me and my students manage our digital lifestyle. But based on what I saw today, it seems Vista is aimed at nothing but the corporate market. There was barely a mention of the education sector unless you include that dill from the Toronto District School Board, but really Bill, he was just embarrassing! You gotta screen these people Bill!

There used to be a time when you understood my needs Bill. You used to know what I wanted and how an operating system would make my life easier. Oh sure, there were plenty of times I’d curse Windows because it crashed and froze on me, but I stuck with it because, well, frankly, I had no option. But Bill, you need to understand that I now have options. Vista is not the only kid on the block, and to be honest, there are other kids on the block that can already do most of what Vista is talking about. Oh sure, they might be called Widgets instead of Gadgets, and Dashboard instead of Sidebar. And although I have to admit that Flip3D thing does look kind of funky, even compared to Expose, do I really need to put up with all the viruses and stuff just to get that?

But Bill, I have to say, I was disappointed with the demos. That poor guy doing the voicemail demo… I felt so sorry for him. He tried and tried and tried to make it work, and it must have been so embarrassing to have it fail in front of so many people, and I don’t blame him for giving up eventually, but it didn’t make Microsoft look good Bill. I saw a few other demos while I was there and several of them ended with the presenters getting so frustrated that things weren’t working and they gave up as well. It’s tough to watch a demo that has to be abandoned Bill… it makes it look like the product is either too hard to use or still a bit buggy. And after spending so long in development, it must break your heart to see Vista behaving badly in public like that. Luckily, the presenters explained what was supposed to happen, so even though it never worked right,at least I have an idea of what was supposed to happen. That was much more reassuring.

Oh, but Bill, I have a piece of advice… When you get your people to present their case studies about your products, you need to create some compelling examples. I can’t believe that one of the case studies talked about a company who moved to Exchange 2007 because they wanted to move away from their aging Novell mail system. Come on Bill! At least give us some good examples of why we should give Microsoft even more money to upgrade our current systems! Of course an aging Novell system is due for an upgrade, but what about the party faithful Bill? What about all those of us who run Exchange 2000 or 2003? What’s in it for us? Or do we wait until our Exchange 2003 server is as old as the Novell server, and simply upgrade to Exchange 2014?

Overall, I have to say I was disappointed. I thought the release lacked pizzazz Bill. It was flat. It lacked sparkle. Even the exhibitors out in the Microsoft Partner displays looked half asleep, and it was a bit embarrassing to see so many of them still using Windows XP. This is a Vista launch, Bill! Surely the partners should all be using Vista by now! You gotta get tough with these people and force them to upgrade! Just pretend they are Microsoft customers and take away their other options… they’ll soon upgrade then!

But yeah, you gotta liven up the next major product launch, get some sparkle happening, maybe even a little charisma or charm. Maybe you could talk Steve Jobs into doing a favour for you, he’s always pretty charismatic on stage, and he seems to be doing a bang-up job promoting Apple at the moment… He’d be good, although he may be a little too busy getting ready for Leopard to help you out right now. Actually, forget about Steve Jobs. You’re probably still mad at him for not telling you what’s going to be in Leopard. How are you supposed to make Vista better than Leopard if he won’t tell you what’s in it? That was so uncharitable of him! Maybe after Leopard comes out you can release Vista Service Pack 1 and bring Vista up to speed again. It’s a good thing that Apple has such a small market share or more people might figure out where all the cool stuff in Vista came from!

I have to apologise and say that I can’t see myself buying Vista right now, but I’m hoping that it will improve over time. Let’s face it, Version 1.o of anything from Microsoft is always just a stopgap right? I’m sure people understand that, and they know that you guys eventually work it out… usually by Version 3 or so. That’s just the way this business works.

I guess you’ll do the same thing with the Zune huh? Once there are some decent songs in the Zune marketplace, and we drop the silly “podcast” word in favour of something more palatable so you can include podcasts on the Zune, I think sales will really take off. No sense in promoting the iPod is there? Maybe they should be called “Zunecasts”? Yes I think that’s much better. Hmmm, now I think about it, I’m surprised I never saw the Zune there today. But then, I guess the launch wasn’t about all that silly digital media stuff, it was about business wasn’t it?

Anyway Bill, I just wanted to say thanks… it’s always good to go to a Microsoft product launch… And people say there’s no such thing as a free lunch!


A Brand New Day in Toronto

I’m sitting at the official Toronto launch of Windows Vista, the theme of which is “A Brand New Day”. If ever I saw someone totally miss the point of what technology means for education, it’s the guy speaking right now from the Toronto District School Board, Jey Jamarararmasomething. When asked what he thought was the best things about Window Vista, and what he thought were the most important new features of Vista, he said that it will help manage the students who bring USB keys between home and school, and it will engage them in learning better because they seem to like the “wow factor” of the new interface. Now there’s a couple of great educationally sound reasons for implementing new technology… not! Where was the conversation about enabling a more connected learning environment? Where was the talk about enabling deeper, better quality learning through the use of technology?

We then had a guy from Microsoft showing a demo of Vista, and we got “wowed” by Gadgets and Flip3D and System Wide Search… (Mac users can just think Widgets and Dashboard and Spotlight – we’ve had that stuff in OSX for years now).

Apart from the eye candy, I honestly can’t see any value in Vista that isn’t already offered in the current version of XP. There are a couple of new ideas there, such as the unified mailbox which allows you to have all your messages, email and voicemail in one place, but the demo of the Outlook voicemail system failed when the voice prompts could not be recognised and the system kept telling the presenter that it could not understand him and to repeat himself. In the end, he just gave up, which is a big call when you’re demoing it in front of a crowd of 3000+ people!

There was a lot of talk about security and inbuilt protection for spyware and malware and phishing, something that is desperately needed for Windows. As a Mac user, none of that stuff worries me too much, so again, not too much value-add there.

More posts to come on this….

The UI Paradox

As a power user on the Windows platform and a quick learner on the Mac platform, there is something about the difference between the two that has always intriuged me. I’ve noticed it in many forms over the years, but I was reminded of it when I read this rather silly report on the TUAW site… I’m sure the fellow who wrote it had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but if you browse through the comments under the main article you’ll find a very interesting thread of discussion has emerged relating to the Mac’s little green zoom button. Seems the zoom button is not without its fair share of controversy and a rather passionate, yet civil, debate is raging there about the differences between the way windows (with a small ‘w’) behave on Windows (with a big ‘W’) versus the way they behave on the Mac.

The basic gist of the discussion is about the subtle difference between the user interfaces of both platforms and the author tries to draw an assertion that the UIs actually cause people to work in quite different ways, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the differences in UI design actually attract different personality types. Not too sure about that one…

But it has always intruiged me that PCs – the machines with the DOS heritage, the machines that started life with nothing more than a simple black-on-white command line interface – are these days operated by the vast majority of users almost exclusively with only a mouse. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Mac, a machine born of a GUI heritage. The Mac is the machine that revolutioned the world with a point-and-click interface. Yet, in my experience, Mac users are far more likely to be the ones who know all the fancy keyboard shortcuts for tasks. Ask any reasonably competent Mac user how to perform a task on their Mac and in a majority of cases they will answer you with a keyboard shortcut. I just think it’s interesting that the machine with the GUI heritage is the one that seems to spawn the user base with the greatest knowledge of keyboard shortcuts – some of which really are quite arcane. The average Windows user on the other hand, drives his or her PC almost exclusively with the mouse. Maybe it’s just that there really are so many average (and below) users on the PC platform that they just don’t bother to learn these shortcuts… I don’t know.

The other paradox, as was mentioned in the comment thread on the TUAW article, is that most Windows users operate in full screen mode nearly all of the time, whereas most Mac users are far more competent and skilled at managing multiple open applications – they have to be because of the Macs UI design – and therefore more skilled at actually using the whole windowing concept. (The commenters to the TUAW article look to blame this behaviour on the controversial zoom button.) I find it mildly amusing that the operating system actually named ‘Windows’ seems to have a far lower percentage of users that CAN actually deal with multiple open windows.

Does this actually say anything about the types of users each platform attracts? Are Mac users better multitaskers? Or is it more to do with the fact that Windows users have a larger user base, and therefore a larger percentage of clueless users? Or is the average Mac user generally more competent at finding their way around the operating system than the average Windows user? Do the navigational quirks of each operating system in fact encourage a totally different approach to learning and using them? Is the Zoom button a flawed idea or a great idea?

I don’t have any answers… I just find the paradox of it quite amusing.

Stark Contrast between OSes


As I write this, I’m downloading updates for Windows in the background. Yes, you read that right. Windows. But wait, aren’t I a Mac guy?

Yes. Absolutely. But I also teach computing in a mainly Windows environment, and it still makes sense to be able to use those few apps that I need in a classroom situation in their native platform environment, and that means Windows. Although I personally prefer to use Mac versions of most applications, it gets too hard to teach a class about the Windows version of Word when they look up and see my Mac version on the data projector. (Despite the fact that everything is there in both versions, the Mac version has a slightly different IU and a few added features, so it doesn’t look identical.)

Anyway, I figured the simplest solution would be to just use the Windows apps for those few times when I need them. There is also a proprietary Markbook app that the school uses that is Windows only, and I would like to run that occasionally too.

As you may have read in a previous post, I was pretty blown away with CrossOver. And despite the fact that CrossOver worked well for Microsoft Office, it still didn’t support Access and Frontpage at all, nor the Markbook app.

So I decided to give Boot Camp a go. Boot Camp lets you dual boot an Intel Mac into Windows natively. No emulation or virtualisation involved, it just runs native on the Intel DualCore processor in the Mac, much as it would on a Dell, Toshiba or ThinkPad. There was really only a handful of apps I was interested in on Windows, mainly Office, so I pared off a 5Gb partition from my 100Gb hard drive and used the Boot Camp installation assistant to package up all the required drivers, etc, stuck the Windows XP disk in, and an hour or so later had a dual boot Mac that easily runs both OS X and Windows XP. Just hold the option key down at startup, choose your operating system, and off you go.

Anyway, it’s always interesting getting a Windows machine up and running. Despite the fact that I really only want a very minimal machine to use occasionally, I’ve just spent a good couple of hours setting it up. I had to install an antivirus program, and my computer is currently in the middle of downloading 59 – yes, 59 – updates for Windows. These are mostly security updates, critical updates, patches, malicious software removal tools, etc. I’d forgotten just how much effort has to go into simply maintaining a Windows box. Add to that the several dozen antivirus update files that AVG needed to pull down, installation of basic utilities like Acrobat Reader to allow me to read a simple PDF file, and I’ve just spent the last 2+ hours simply updating this machine so it’s safe enough just to go online. What a joke.

By contrast, when I got my Mac I just opened it up and started to use it. No driver issues, no AV issues, no missing utilities, and only a couple of updates – mostly version updates for iLife apps, not security updates. The updates were all done in a couple of minutes.  Back in Windows I’m experiencing the usual symptoms – “menu lag”, unacceptably long delays between clicks, excessive hard drive activity, hung applications, and a system that gives error messages at shutdown. This is a clean install for goodness sake!! That’s pathetic!

It’s installing those updates now, only 42 more to go. Seriously, I’m SO looking forward to rebooting and going back to an OS that Just Works.

Crossing Over

I’ve just been playing with a very cool piece of software for the Mac. Or is it a piece of software for Windows? Actually, it’s kind of both.

Crossover is based on the work of the WINE project – a curiously-named self-iterative anagram that stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. WINE has long been used in the Linux community as a means of getting Windows programs to run under Linux. When I first looked at it several years ago it was still very raw and new and difficult to use. However, in the last few years, WINE (and in fact Linux too) has come a very long way. Linux development moves forward at an amazing pace and the last few distributions I looked at were very impressive indeed.

Back to Crossover. Although it’s still only in Public Beta, Crossover runs as an application on either the Mac or Linux platforms and it allows genuine Windows applications to be run natively on either of those OSes. Not emulated. Natively. That means you can take a Windows program and install it on the Mac (or Linux) and have it run as just another application under Mac OSX. It works by translating the API calls of the Windows app directly to the equivalent API calls in the Mac OS, effectively allowing the program to exist in the new OS environment. It’s an incredibly clever piece of software engineering that I think is greatly significant for those of use who don’t want to be restricted in our choice of operating system.


The neat thing is that it truly does run the program under Mac OSX, so the speed of the programs is pretty much the same us it would be under Windows… it’s not an emulation like Parallels, and it doesn’t require a reboot like Boot Camp. It just runs the program in OSX as though it was in Windows. You can copy and paste between the two environments, and the Windows app has full access to the Mac’s file system. The application toolbar resides in the window, just as it would under Windows, while the Mac toolbar shows the Mac as running Crossover… very neat! The installation was very straight forward, and sports a long list of supported Windows apps, including several versions of Photoshop, several versions of Office, plus a bunch of others, including games. You can also try to run other Windows apps, but obviously they can’t test everything. I suppose that’s why it’s still a Public Beta.

It’s kind of weird seeing Windows apps running on my Mac. I don’t really have a need to do it, since there is a Mac program to do do pretty much everything I need to do. I suppose it would be good for software training, as you can effectively use one machine to run an application for whatever platform you need. Other than that, I’m not sure why I’d even want to run a Windows app on my Mac. Still, it’s pretty cool that it can be done, and opens up a whole range of options for those people who would really like to switch, except for that one Windows program that they just can’t live without…

We live in interesting times.