Difference between MBCS and UTF-8 on Windows

Issue

I am reading about the charater set and encodings on Windows. I noticed that there are two compiler flags in Visual Studio compiler (for C++) called MBCS and UNICODE. What is the difference between them ? What I am not getting is how UTF-8 is conceptually different from a MBCS encoding ? Also, I found the following quote in MSDN:

Unicode is a 16-bit character encoding

This negates whatever I read about the Unicode. I thought unicode can be encoded with different encodings such as UTF-8 and UTF-16. Can somebody shed some more light on this confusion?

Solution

I noticed that there are two compiler
flags in Visual Studio compiler (for
C++) called MBCS and UNICODE. What is
the difference between them ?

Many functions in the Windows API come in two versions: One that takes char parameters (in a locale-specific code page) and one that takes wchar_t parameters (in UTF-16).

int MessageBoxA(HWND hWnd, const char* lpText, const char* lpCaption, unsigned int uType);
int MessageBoxW(HWND hWnd, const wchar_t* lpText, const wchar_t* lpCaption, unsigned int uType);

Each of these function pairs also has a macro without the suffix, that depends on whether the UNICODE macro is defined.

#ifdef UNICODE
   #define MessageBox MessageBoxW
#else
   #define MessageBox MessageBoxA
#endif

In order to make this work, the TCHAR type is defined to abstract away the character type used by the API functions.

#ifdef UNICODE
    typedef wchar_t TCHAR;
#else
    typedef char TCHAR;
#endif

This, however, was a bad idea. You should always explicitly specify the character type.

What I am not getting is how UTF-8 is
conceptually different from a MBCS
encoding ?

MBCS stands for "multi-byte character set". For the literal minded, it seems that UTF-8 would qualify.

But in Windows, "MBCS" only refers to character encodings that can be used with the "A" versions of the Windows API functions. This includes code pages 932 (Shift_JIS), 936 (GBK), 949 (KS_C_5601-1987), and 950 (Big5), but NOT UTF-8.

To use UTF-8, you have to convert the string to UTF-16 using MultiByteToWideChar, call the "W" version of the function, and call WideCharToMultiByte on the output. This is essentially what the "A" functions actually do, which makes me wonder why Windows doesn’t just support UTF-8.

This inability to support the most common character encoding makes the "A" version of the Windows API useless. Therefore, you should always use the "W" functions.

Update: As of Windows 10 build 1903 (May 2019 update), UTF-8 is now supported as an "ANSI" code page. Thus, my original (2010) recommendation to always use "W" functions no longer applies, unless you need to support old versions of Windows. See UTF-8 Everywhere for text-handling advice.

Unicode is a 16-bit character encoding

This negates whatever I read about the
Unicode.

MSDN is wrong. Unicode is a 21-bit coded character set that has several encodings, the most common being UTF-8, UTF-16, and UTF-32. (There are other Unicode encodings as well, such as GB18030, UTF-7, and UTF-EBCDIC.)

Whenever Microsoft refers to "Unicode", they really mean UTF-16 (or UCS-2). This is for historical reasons. Windows NT was an early adopter of Unicode, back when 16 bits was thought to be enough for everyone, and UTF-8 was only used on Plan 9. So UCS-2 was Unicode.

Answered By – dan04

This Answer collected from stackoverflow, is licensed under cc by-sa 2.5 , cc by-sa 3.0 and cc by-sa 4.0

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