x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Start-ups change the script

Analysis Middle East firms are writing software to get Arabic text on the web, competing with the likes of Google and Microsoft.

Arabic language programmers are taking their place online.
Arabic language programmers are taking their place online.

If imitation is, as the saying goes, the best form of flattery, a small group of Arab internet start-ups has been given a huge nod of recognition this year. While the most prominent Middle-Eastern online businesses have brought globally successful trends such as blogging or media sharing to local audiences, some of the most innovative have been chipping away at a more complex problem: how to get the Arabic language integrated into the heart of the internet and computing.

Like all languages written in non-Latin scripts, there are technical and cultural challenges in making Arabic a major internet language. The region's most affluent and educated citizens, and therefore the first to take to the internet, typically speak a second, globalised language, either English or French. Computer keyboards and internet sites were rarely designed for Arabic input and a critical mass of foreign language content and sites meant users gravitated to international sites, not local ones.

The ability to search for content in Arabic was slow to emerge. And when transliterated into Latin letters, Arabic has an ambiguity and complexity that has had the most talented of engineers scratching their heads. Take the Egyptian singer Omm Kolthoum, one of the most famous Arab cultural figures of the 20th century. Depending on how you choose to convert her name into Latin letters, she could be called Umm Kolsoum, Um Kolsoom, Omm Kulthum and so on.

The former Lebanese telecommunications minister, Jibran Bassil, can be found online as Gibran Bassile, Gebran Basil and Jebran Bassile. The culture of written Arabic on the web is still in its early stages. It remains more common for users to write in transliterated form, in a hybrid form dubbed by some as Arabizi, which is a play on the Arabic word for English. The form, commonly used on message boards and forums, or in instant messenger chats and mobile text messages, will probably remain a part of the Arabic internet for the foreseeable future. But a number of start-up companies have developed technologies that they think will help get more Arabic text on the web.

Two, Yamli and Onkosh, offer search engines that include a virtual, pop-up Arabic keyboard, letting users search for terms in Arabic even when a physical Arabic keyboard is not available. Both also let a user type search terms in Arabizi and have them automatically convert the text into Arabic script. They are tools that have become useful accessories for Arabic speakers and students of the language.

Both are now looking to expand the reach of their tools, hoping they will help more internet content to be written in the language of tens of millions of web users. "We see ourselves as a company that is trying to solve problems for the Arabic language and Arabic users online," says Habib Haddad, the co-founder of Yamli. "We're trying to solve a very tough problem with content, a problem that Arabic users face every day. We're trying to do something about it.

"Today, our technology is focused online, because that's the place with the easiest access. But our typing technology has become so well branded and well adopted that it only makes sense for us to move that into the desktop and mobile, and you will see something coming very soon from us on that front." The Middle East's most established specialist in Arabic computing is Sakhr Software, which is based in Kuwait. For more than three decades, the company has built a solid base of technology and intellectual property in the field of Arabic computational linguistics, or having the Arabic language understood, translated and processed by computers.

Sakhr has built a strong customer base among governments and militaries in the region and in the West. Last month, it acquired the Silicon Valley company Dial Directions, which specialises in developing mobile phone applications that use spoken instructions and voice recognition. As a part of Sakhr, it will help it develop mobile software that will let Arabic and English speakers hold simultaneously translated conversations.

"This will bring us a step closer to the consumer end of the business," says Fahad al Sharekh, Sakhr's chief executive. "We have had the confidence and the courage to look forward and aggressively expand in a very difficult economic environment, and have acquired a team of world-class technologists in the home of internet technology." The company's knowledge and experience, and its strong relationships with military and governments, have made it a regular target for buy-outs.

"We have been approached by the big players," Mr al Sharekh says. "We've waited, because we want to see what happens. We feel very positive, we've been doing it for 30 years. But we've definitely entertained serious offers." As the world's biggest internet companies begin to show interest in the Arab world, smaller services such as Yamli or Onkosh, which is owned by a subsidiary of Egypt's Orascom Telecom, are seeing much bigger competitors enter their niche market.

Microsoft and Google have recently launched Arabic transliteration services, both of which allow users to type in Arabizi and have it instantly converted to Arabic script. Microsoft's product, named Maren, is intended as an add-on for the computer's operating system, to be used for writing in Arabic both online and off. Google's product, Ta3reeb, is an online service that can be used on a Google-hosted page, or embedded in other websites.

Users can expect to see more developments from both companies. Ta3reeb was developed by Google's Arabic Labs, an inhouse team devoted to developing products and services for the Arabic market. Maren was developed at the Cairo Microsoft Innovation Lab, which has a similar task for the software giant. For Yamli, Onkosh and others, the arrival of such major players with huge budgets for research and development suggest a much more competitive future. Mr Haddad takes their interest as a compliment.

"It is flattering to see the big guys try and replicate a technology that was developed by the small guys," he says. "On a high level, the big guys are needed to drive the industry. But the down-and-dirty problems will always get solved by the small companies." tgara@thenational.ae