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/

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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!