Yamli, Google Ta3reeb and now Microsoft Maren. What is the point exactly??!

What is the great secret or business opportunity behind all this activity to solve the “problem” of typing Arabic on a computer. Doesn’t this sound so 1985?

First there was Yamli, which popularized the concept of web based Arabic transliteration (you type in Latin letters and Yamli intelligently transforms what you’re writing into real Arabic). Then the 500 pound gorilla, Google, came out with their own service, called Ta3reeb. And now, believe it or not, the other 500 pound Gorilla (with a bit of grey hair), Microsoft, came out with their own spin on the concept, called Maren, which is a Windows extension (useless for a Mac user like me) that takes the transliteration idea into the operating system itself, enabling you to type Arabi/3arabi in all Windows applications.

Now before anyone thinks I just want to bash the idea and its various incarnations, let me declare here that I am a happy user of Yamli. I use it often to do Arabic searches. Yamli is really well designed, intelligent and works beautifully.

But why am I a user? BECAUSE I HAVE A LATIN ONLY KEYBOARD! That’s why.

Yamli Arabic trnsliteration tool

I am impressed with Yamli and I understand the problem it solves. Apparently, there are people like me, who want to sometimes type in Arabic but can’t because they have no Arabic keyboard. I used to solve this problem by plugging in an old iMac USB keyboard into my PowerBook and just type away. Well now I use Yamli. And so do others. I checked out Yamli’s Alexa ranking today and it was something around 35,000. So SOMEONE out there must be using it. It no easy feat to become site number 35,000 in a world of millions and millions of websites.

Wether this could be turned in a profitable business is an entirely different question, of course.

Yamli alexa ranking

Alexa reveals another thing: 16% of Yamli’s users come from Algeria. That’s interesting. I discussed this with some colleagues at the office and we put forward a theory that Algeria must be that kind of country where there is be quite a lot of users who want to type/search in Arabic but don’t have Arabic keyboards. Why? Maybe because of the Francophone culture imposed by the former French colonial powers. This strong Francophone culture might have lead to a situation where Arabic keyboards are not that widespread in what is, after all, an Arab country. Anyone from Algeria who can weigh in on this please be my guest with comment!

In Jordan, this Arabic keyboard problem simply does not exist. The cheapest PC keyboard in the market comes Arabized. Mobile phones are largely Arabized. The mainstream of people in Jordan (and in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) write emails in Arabic, type Word docs in Arabic and send SMS’s in Arabic. The problem that Yamli is trying to solve almost does not exist.

So who the heck uses Yamli in Jordan (other than me)?

My 11 year old son does.

Over lunch yesterday, I asked him about that. He learned about Yamli from me. That much we had already established. After some deeper questioning (much to his bewilderment) a picture started to emerge. My son’s new Mac Mini doesn’t have an Arabic Keyboard. But his older Mac did. So why Yamli? The boy is just “westernized”, for the lack of a better word. He is bad at typing Arabic. His introduction to computing was through English language software and web sites. So he uses Yamli to avoid slow typing in Arabic. A few of his classmates at school do this too.

So does the great future of Yamli lay in the fact there is a whole generation of 11 year olds out there who, although they will have Arabic keyboards on their desks, simply can’t type in Arabic?

I don’t think so. My son’s second cousin who’s also 11 but is not so English-language oriented, is a fast typer in Arabic. For him and millions of Arabs, the problem does not exist.

OK. So I can understand that a small percentage of Arabs in the Arab world, some Arabs living across the world and some scholars might find Yamli useful. I am even willing to imagine that some sort of a profitable business can be built around this bunch of people.

But I want to get back to my original question. Why on EARTH do Google and Microsoft feel compelled to come out with their own Yamli clones?

Google Ta3reeb
Microsoft Maren

Don’t these two companies have anything better to do for the Arab web? Or is this an easy way for them to look like they’re doing something “innovative” for Arabia. The Arab web’s problems are so many: from the lack of Arabic content, to the lack of one proper e-commerce player in the market. Yet here we are still innovating around the “typing problem”.

Habib Haddad, talking to Startup Arabia to comment about Maren said:

“I guess big companies recognize a good idea when they see it, as an Arabic startup we are flattered to see this happen. As you know our focus has always been on the user so stay tuned for new releases from Yamli.”

Well good luck to him. But I am honestly not convinced that MS and Google are going anywhere with the idea.

It will be hard enough for Yamli to build a business around their tool. Now they have competition at the level of Windows and from Google.

Too much noise and effort around too small of a niche. I don’t get it. Do you?

25 Responses to “Yamli, Google Ta3reeb and now Microsoft Maren. What is the point exactly??!”

  1. Dave Says:

    I bought my Mac in Jordan and it comes with a Latin/Arabic keyboard, so I don’t need any of these services, but it’s fun to see you rant about it.

  2. Adnan Says:

    Well I guess this can be useful for some people like me who sometimes have to chat with or send email to relatives and friends who do not read or write English and end up spending 10 times more to do so in Arabic.. it can also be very useful if you have to write Arabic reports and documents for a Saudi or Syrian client!!

    The idea is not new as you know.. there has been similar implementations for more complex languages such as chinese and they are profitable and actually used by millions of users.. internet business as you know is all about having more clicks and impressions.. having such an application is not a rocket science and does not take much from a company like Google and Microsoft.. I’m glad this is around now it really solved a problem for me ;)

  3. Craig Says:

    They both employ over 10,000 programmers, and only have enough real (meaning profitable) work for a couple hundred. What would you do? :)

    The home computer industry (I only said that instead of PC because you said you use a mac, weirdo) has been “mature” for over 10 years. There’s nothing revolutionary going on. Even Google isn’t substantially different than Webcrawler was in 1993. It’s just better. A little. Every software vendor on the planet is trying to find better ways to do things that were first done decades ago. And they have these huge teams of hundreds of programmers, just to MAINTAIN products that were originally created by a team of 3 or 4. But that doesn’t fit in with the whole “revolutionary” theme of the “home computer” (I’m telling you, using a mac is just plain weird) industry. So they have a gazillion recent college grads trying to come up with some new recipe that their predecessors never managed to come up with, and that will revitalize an industry that’s in actuality pretty stagnant.

    I personally hope somebody succeeds at that, because the computer industry is pretty boring these days.

  4. Nadine Says:

    I agree with Habib that they know a good idea when they see one, but I really think a big part of what compels them to offer such a service is the west’s need to look into/tap into/understand/be part of the Arab mind, culture, language. Similar to the increasing number of people learning Arabic in schools/colleges/off campus, coming to spend time in the Arab world to learn about this part of the globe’s psyche, taking language classes while here (among other learnings). And, here’s the conspiracy thinker in me speaking, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of this has been driven by some political conversations.

    A few years ago Washington decided that a way to understand the Arabs is to start watching our films. They started to invite some prominent people in the film and film edu industry to come in and do talks/workshops/screenings about Arab & Middle East media, films and various Arabic & Farsi screen content. It was fascinating to hear about the sheer cluelessness of those sitting in the room. Apparently what they were exposed to seemed very alien. As I would hear about these meets, I often imagined our culture as a specimen in a lab filled with dudes in white coats scurrying around. So.. think of all the curious latin keyboard people in the US and around the world, wanting to reach out. These services come in very handy :)

  5. Tom Gara Says:

    A few thoughts:

    – Perhaps “the typing problem” is disproportionately experienced by the kinds of people who tend to be internet professionals – entrepreneurs like Habib and Arab-Americans in Google, Microsoft etc.
    – Not sure about a business model, but these typing services have a similar logic to shiny, expensive Apple laptops – only popular among a small segment of the market, but it is an extremely important segment. Westernised Arabic speakers in Cairo, Casablanca, Amman etc are most likely to be the kind of customers Google and Microsoft want to keep happy, and the kinds of eyeballs Yamli needs to sell to high-end regional advertisers.
    – Likewise, when you talk about Arabic content, which is the biggest shortfall of the Arabic web, I get the feeling that the people who face “the typing problem” are a pretty important crowd to get participating in user generated content, blogging etc…

  6. Tarek Says:

    I TOTALLY agree with this post… I would understand why some would need a transliteration tool to type in Arabic cause their keyboards don’t support it, but why on earth would the majority of Arabs use it instead of learning how to type in Arabic… It’s just like typing in English, once you get the hang of it, it’s there in your brain… Such a shame that the Arabic languages keeps detoriorating and instead of learning typing and actually writing in our mother tongue’s language, we need to tool like yamli. I’m not surprised that yamil was a product of a couple of Lebanese students, since us Lebanese “are not Arabs, we’re better than them” (no one get offended, I’m being sarcastic here) and it is such mentality looming over the whole Arab world that Arabic is so old fashioned and English is cool, that yields the need for such tools… Totally shameful… Great post though…

  7. Bardees Says:

    a great post,thank you for all the facts you showed, I agree with you! I don’t get it either

  8. Habib Says:

    Thanks for the post Ahmed, I thought I’d jump in and reply to your concerns directly :)

    Regarding the Alexa distribution, it doesn’t jive at all with our internal Analytics, while Alexa says Algeria constitutes 17% and is #1, it actually is only at 3% with the 9th position :) Adding to that Alexa doesn’t take into consideration the API usage that exists on 3rd party sites (a few hundreds)

    I can’t comment on the product strategy moving forward but I can comment on the current offerings, and one thing you dismissed is the search component which actually is the bulk of the usage ... The big advantage here as you know is the extra relevant results provided by expanding the queries to all it’s Latin variations. In this example http://is.gd/1IHKT you get 400% more relevant results …

    Thanks again for being a user and for telling your son about Yamli :)

    Hope this helps !

  9. Issmat Says:

    I grew up in Yemen but my exposure to typing was purely in English. Once you pick up typing at a young age, it’s hard to change that habit when you are older. Learning to type in Arabic at age 30 is like learning to play the guitar: i can do it and it would be nice, but I really don’t have the time if there is a easier alternative.

    I live in Canada and access to Arabic keyboards is near impossible. I work in international marketing and often need to communicate with middleeast people, so yamli has been excellent! I have been working on a campaign for Saudi Arabia and have used yamli every day for the past two months to Arabize an online contest and create content for newspaper inserts.

    The yamli firefox addon has been a lifesaver and saved so much time in promoting the campaign online. I use it to participate in Arabic forums and to respond to questions about the contest that are sent by non English speakers. Yamli makes running multinational campaigns with localized Arabic content easy to do from any part of the world.

  10. Marwan Says:

    Shouldn’t they focus more on fixing how Arabic text is rendered in the first place! Punctuations often appear on the wrong end of the sentence and when you write a sentence with both Arabic words and English words, the ordering is usually pretty messed up!

  11. tas Says:

    why you say?
    how about because they can :P

    those who control technology are those who can…. ... i guess the capitalist mentality means the the existence of a service does not mean that you take your venture else where, no?

  12. moi Says:

    I work in Washington DC and often need to type in Arabic—I don’t have an Arabic keyboard, and sometimes even typing straight into word and then transferring text gets messed up. So I’m a big Yamli fan!
    I’m not sure why these big shots are getting into the business, especially since by entering they haven’t really brought anything “new” or “improved”. They just copied the idea under their brand name. Seriously a waste of time, and I hope people stick to Yamli.

  13. Alex Says:

    As everyone else has pointed out, the business case lies in the fact that the people who (like you) find Yamli easier than an Arabic keyboard are a sought after demographic in their own right. Presumably ta3reeb is someone’s 20% project as the indic transliteration tool was before it. And who knows why Microsoft does anything, but I like the idea of this available throughout the OS.

    The only worthwhile thing MS makes is their ergonomic keyboards, and I’m using one with stickers for the Arabic keyboard right now. But since I found yamli I almost never use the Arabic keyboard. English typing (for me) is all about sense memory, and my Arabic typing has never gotten past hunt and peck.

  14. Jamal Says:

    I’m really kind of bewildered here, why in the world is a yamli or ta3reeb or maren even necessary? I’m not a native Arabic speaker and I’ve rarely if ever had an Arabic keyboard in front of me, but over the years I’ve probably typed fluently on 3 different Arabic keyboard layouts (plus 2 English ones and one other European one) on Macs and PCs. It’s not that hard. You print yourself out a key chart (which you can make yourself just by plunking each key once into a word or whatever doc). You look at the chart for a little while getting used to it, in less than an hour you’re doing ok and in a couple days you’re as fast at the new keyboard as the old one. I’ve never used any of these services, but ironically it sounds like all you’re doing is teaching yourself a modified Latin-sound-based Arabic keyboard. Why not just teach yourself the Arabic one to begin with? If you’re on the computer all the time, it takes no time at all and only a minimum amount of dedicated effort.

  15. bint battuta Says:

    I think a comment I left yesterday has been swallowed up by the spam filter…

  16. numandina Says:

    I’m in Jordan with an Arabetized keyboard but I use these things because I’m embarrassly slow at typing in Arabic when compared to English.

  17. Shaher Says:

    Well i also use yamli when i want to make a quick searc but only coz my keyboard have no arabic letters, but its easier to plug in a usb keyboard when i need to type a document.I’ve taken a look at this silly Microsoft Maren tutorial have u noticed that the main focus of the tutorial? you’ll be faster typing arabic words in english !! what the hell where they thinking?? Typical Microsoft ..

  18. bint battuta Says:

    Well, just in case, here it is again. I just wanted to say that this is a great post and a very good question; I wrote about the same topic a few weeks ago, and some people commented that they felt insulted by the way Microsoft has marketed Maren.

  19. Ayman Says:

    you can add http://www.arabic-keyboard.org/ to these service sites

  20. TechCzar Says:

    I don’t see what the big deal is about these sites. One thing is for sure, these types of things are usually not successful to this scale unless there was a need, and they filled that gap. I think the idea is ingenious and allows for much flexibility. If I’m using a Nokia in the states without Arabic letters, its a bit hard to type, this solves that problem. Arabic language keyboards are not nearly as standard as western languages. Therefore, keys have a tendency to move and what you learned only has a 80% chance of being correct.

    Let’s be clear about one thing, this is innovation and that should not be slammed, dissed or held back. If their success is due to the failure of Arabs to standardize keyboards and learn to type their own language, then whose fault is it? Not Yamli’s that for sure.

  21. Fayez Says:

    Just because “we” did it, it does not make rocket science. Any serious programmer in language processing would tell you that the problem that yamli has solved is so trivial it is irrelevant.
    How about we look at ourselves and see why (oh why) can we not communicate succinctly our needs to Google, Microsoft, and whomever and push for solutions that are more dramatic than a simple table that maps a very finite set of inputs to outputs???
    There are bigger problems with Arabic processing, where do you begin? With the fact that Microsoft Word spell checker gives erroneous suggestions for more often than right suggestions or do you start with a yamli problem? Check out the treatment (processing) of the Arabic language oblivious of parts of speech or hard coding words of the same family together (current band aid to search inclusivity by the boys) and, let’s start lobbying for RESPECT of Arabic and the Arab users?
    Or maybe we need to ask why do the Arab employees at the big boys’ firms don’t do their job right to begin with ??? They settle for mediocrity and I will stop here. End of my rant.

  22. TechCzar Says:

    Fayez, I could not disagree more with your statement “Any serious programmer in language processing would tell you that the problem that yamli has solved is so trivial it is irrelevant.” I always here these types of statements. If it is so simple and so irrelevant then why didn’t they do it and be well on their way to successful business careers? Its because sometimes things are simple in retrospect, but it still takes someone to do something special to even make the obvious into something marketable and successful. If it was truly that simple to build yamli then everyone that commented on it in this list would have done it themselves.

    As for these companies not giving Arab language users more options, I believe this is a matter of economics. Its not in their best interest economically to do it because the market is so small. Arab countries would be wise to start using Open Office or submitting legislation to move all government offices to it. Microsoft and Apple would hear that one loud and clear.

  23. Nadim Says:

    I am a student at Columbia Univ, my roommate is studying computational linguistic … It’s not trivial at all to get to that level of accuracy, but maybe trivial to just do something like eiktub.com. I have been using Yamli mainly because it’s much more accurate then the rest and for doing searches, surprisingly Google and all it’s greatness produced the least accurate with ta3reeb, I don’t use MS because I am not a PC and plus it’s MS … My 2 cents

  24. Fayez Says:

    TechCzar, Mamoun and I hashed it in 2005 !! I guess the only way to prove it is to show you. Please stay tuned….may be with a little bit of spice (with some luck)

    And my answer to your queston is: because it does not a career make Of course, I would love to have Yamli turn out with a real NLP break through and have me eat my words. Ahmad,I will print my words and eat them if this happens.

    I agree that with your point regading economics but would like to highlight the role of the deficient (inexistant) standards in this case as well.

    If it were the case that search engines are required to parse Aabic diactrics properly, somebody would have paid more attention to the problem.

    Moreover, one cannot ignore the lucrative economics of Arabic language processing in security areas which have built whole businesses like M. Yaghi and company did.

    The money is there and I don’t think either Google or Microsoft minds a pay cheque from Langley although others probably do.

    Makes sense?

  25. Ammar Says:

    Hi hello dudes,
    2 things:
    -Usefullness of that thing (I’m not interested in talking about this)
    -Why do the giants put their feet in this area? (The real question Ahmad asked).

    The answer is quite much easy and sad and painful:
    to stop the local people doing something smart/creative/innovative.
    The Yamli thing is certainly a smart thing (Usefullness is certainly also very subjective) but those same people can later on get more money/resources/experience adding to that their original creativity/innovation and could come up with a new idea later on and then really being a threat for those giants.

    So the best way not to have future threateners is to kill them/suffocate them while still babies (I mean in their very early life).

    That’s my point of view.. Up to you guys to wake up and understand the depth of what I’m saying.


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