Inter-language with e-bin
How one company made an existing product better

- by Hugh Ashton -

Typically, software is designed to work in only one language. Additional languages are often afterthoughts, and the resulting localized versions sometimes show the scars of surgery where the joins have been made. One recent exception is e-bin, an Internet-based document delivery and tracking system, produced from the start to be bilingual and bicultural in English and Japanese.

There are effective ways of using the Internet to deliver documents electronically, but in the graphics design industry, color proofs and "comps" for brochures, leaflets, and other publications can be very large, and sending them by e-mail may cause corporate or ISP mail servers to choke on the excessive volume of data. Sending them by ftp, or placing them on a website for later retrieval raises security issues, and both these methods demand server-side administration. Additionally, none of these provide a project leader with a record of what data was moved from whom, to whom, and when.


As a solution to this problem, a Nebraska-based direct mail company, Acton Inc., developed the Interproof system, based on a database server using a Web browser interface. Interproof was designed to allow Acton designers and their clients to exchange design ideas and proofs - hence the name - using Adobe's PDF format as a common interchange medium. The system was deployed to Acton's Japan partner, Acton Fujimori K.K., who began preparing publicity material in Japanese to advertise the system's features. However, "it wasn't long before we saw," explains Shugi Fujimori, Acton Fujimori's President, "that we could create an improved product that had a more general appeal, particularly in the Japanese market."

Creating the site

Accordingly, an Acton Fujimori team was launched, headed in Japan by Wayne Benjamin, a New Zealander who works for the company. The team refined the user interface, maintaining Interproof's basic operating features, which used a Web browser and HTML as the basic interface for access into a project-based system, avoiding the proprietary software used by some e-bin competitors. Microsoft's FrontPage was used by the Japan team to modify dynamic templates and static information directly on the Nebraska server, where key components of the e-bin service reside, avoiding an "endless cycle of upgrades and bug fixes." Consequently, the localized system - dubbed "e-bin" - is simple and robust and if a user can see the e-bin welcome page in his or her browser, then the system can be used. The browser's own security technology is used for secure transmissions of data to and from the server.

Multilanguage capability

Using a Web browser also neatly sidesteps the problem of developing and distributing many different versions of the software. English-language browsers can (with the appropriate fonts) be configured to read Japanese pages, so if an e-bin user adds Japanese comments and the recipient does not have a Japanese OS, the comments can still be read. Of course, if a file with a Japanese character name is downloaded to an English-only computer, the filename will appear as garbage (mojibake), and it must be renamed on the English computer. However, it was important to the project team that double byte filenames be usable - restricting the e-bin service to English-only filenames would be a serious limitation. Jon Lambert, the President of Acton Inc., claims that "this will be equally true when we produce the Chinese and Korean versions - as long as the browser has the appropriate Asian language support, e-bin is ready to handle the language".

Multilanguage from the start

The technical reasons for this were explained by the key developer of e-bin, Dr. Muhlin Chen, Associate Director of the Research Computing Group of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who had also worked on the Interproof project. From the start, Chen and his assistant Yong-Jia Ni, also of the Research Computing Group, planned the project to be bilingual. By using an underlying technology which allowed for double byte characters, parallel design of the English and Japanese sites was made possible. Chen explains, "We used a Java-like scripting language known as Pagelet, designed by us, to handle the server side. It's similar to Sun's current dynamic page language (JSP), but Pagelet was the only one of its kind at the time. We were not sure at first whether we would have problems with double byte characters, however we only needed to change three or four lines of code in the interpreter for it to be able to handle double-byte characters." The Web server (Apache) and the database engine (mysql) are double byte capable, so all the ingredients for true localization were there. Chen again: "Java is a modern language - the built-in Unicode and multilingual support really reduced a lot of work for us. Pagelet is designed so that you can simply copy the files to another location, and they still work. For instance, after we designed the site in English, it only took us a few seconds to duplicate the directory structure for Japanese." The result of this for users is that a login can be done in either English or Japanese, and users can click a button at any time to change the language of the interface for the current screen, even when that screen is the result of a database query.

Effective localization includes time

True localization is much more than having two interfaces, though. For instance, one problem was what time standard should be used for the delivery and pickup of files to and from the server as part of a project's history. The prototype version took the easy way out - it used Nebraska (server local) time - totally incomprehensible to users in Japan, and after some debate, it was decided to use GMT. However, there were (and still are) those within the e-bin team who felt that Swatch Internet Beat time should be used. (The Swatch company promotes a system whereby all time in the world is the same (set to Swiss time), and a 24-hour day is divided into 1,000 "beats", represented by three digits, prefixed with an @ symbol. Midnight (Swiss time) is therefore @000 and midday is @500. The e-bin site is an example of a site which might benefit from such a standard - Ed.)

According to Benjamin, this is one of the issues on which the beta testers will have the final say (at the time of writing, e-bin was still in testing). Another concern was payment. Although corporate credit cards are a relative rarity in Japan, it was felt card payment presented the simplest method of keeping costs down (the fee for the e-bin service will probably be "about the same price as an individual Internet connection"). Japanese cards, such as JCB will, of course, be accepted.

Nomenclature was another problem. The original system name - Interproof - was felt to be too restrictive, and too foreign for the Japanese market. By analogy with e-mail, takkyubin (express delivery), yubin (postal delivery) and baiku-bin (motorcycle courier), e-bin was born. The name itself was considered to work in both Japanese and English, even though it was recognized that bin is often used as the British (and New Zealand, among others) phrase for trash can or "to throw into the trash".

"To describe the users of the e-bin service, our developers wanted to use the same word in both English and Japanese," says Benjamin. "Since modern Japanese uses a lot of borrowed words, we were on fairly safe ground if we picked the right words." However, the first attempts to pick the right words, such as Coordinator, Supplier, Director, etc., were felt to be too specific and limiting, as well as confusing to the developers. Eventually, the more neutral terms Team Leader (for the paying subscriber to the e-bin service) and Team Member (for those who are enrolled onto a Team by the Leader, and who exchange data with the Team Leader) were adopted.

Automatic e-mail messages alert recipients when deliveries have been made, or when other important events in the data flow occur. These messages are issued in a language specified for the recipient of the mail at the time that the account is first set up (it may subsequently be changed).

The e-bin system looks poised to be an interesting development in Internet-based services for the expanding SOHO market, as well as design agencies and freelance artists, etc. who need to track the progress of collaborative projects. Its multinational and multicultural roots have given it a firm foundation for bilingual use, and room to expand in the future.

Hugh Ashton writes regularly for Computing Japan. For more information on e-bin, access

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