June 18, 2006

Two examples from the 200 Zlango SMS icons that are set to revolutionize messagingHave you ever sent a text message on your cell phone, looked at the black and white letters, and wished that there were another way to convey your silly joke or sappy love note? Thanks to the technology of Israeli startup company Zlango, there will be soon.

According to CEO Yoav Lorch, the colorful and snazzy icon-based language that Zlango’s developed could revolutionize the world of text messaging as we know it.

“Text messaging is a recent phenomena,” explains Lorch, sitting in his bright orange office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon. Sporting jeans and long hair, he evidently knows the youth market which is catapulting the SMS market into the stratosphere.

“Five years ago, hardly anyone was sending SMS (Short Message Service) messages. Today, billions of messages are sent each month worldwide, and the market keeps growing,” he told ISRAEL21c.

The idea for the product came to Lorch back in 2000 when he was living in the US and working for a company on a system that shortened language. To his disappointment, he realized that even with eliminating as much excess as possible, language could virtually be reduced by 20% –maximum. Lorch wanted to take the concept to the extreme; to reduce language by 80%, because as he puts it, “SMS should fly.”

Lorch built a basic concept for a wordless SMS language and took it to a designer in San Francisco, but was told he was ahead of his time due to technology restrictions. However, three years later and back in Israel – with the text messaging industry booming – Lorch decided it was the right time to revive the idea, and Zlango was born.

According to Lorch, sending a Zlango message is no different than sending a text message. Its easy-to-use menu divides the various icons into categories such as “Actions,” “Time,” or “Places.” Hopping through the various categories, the text messenger picks and chooses different icons that symbolize the message he or she wants to send.

Whether your message is “I love you” or “You make me sick,” Zlango provides the icons to create the sentiment in the most clear non-written form.

So, one might ask, what is the point of this technology? It took thousands of years to develop written language as we now know it. Why would we go back to hieroglyphics when we don’t need to?

Lorch answers the question simply, “Why not?” Emphasizing the fun, color and lightness of Zlango, even if you’re sending an angry message, he adds, “We make people laugh.”

Since most text messages sent on cell phones are short and to the point, the idea behind Zlango is to eliminate the monotony of pounding out messages letter-by-letter and replace the process with something creative and fun, Lorch explains.

“Younger and younger kids are getting cell phones, and they understand Zlango easily, even before they can read they get it,” says Lorch.

Evidently, shortening language is an Israeli concept. Hebrew has far fewer words in its lexicon than English, and the goal of Zlango, to put it simply, is just that: to shorten language. About 200 icons will be used, all of which are globally universal.

The challenge lies in the ability of Zlango to create memorable and easily understood icons. Amir Yagil, official “Director of the People Love Zlango” Department, asserts that they are unforgettable.

“Once you know an icon,” he says, “you know it forever.” For the icons that may be unrecognizable to different cultures, a small change might be made. For example, the symbol for food in Israel is a fork and hot dog. If this symbol is sent to Japan, it will be changed to sushi and chopsticks.

With funding from private investors which helped him launch the company in 2003 along with his personal investment, Lorch has built the company into 20 employees ? divided between engineers and designers.

“We created a new language” explains Lorch, adding that the product will soon be accessible through every major cell phone carrier in Israel. There are plans to introduce Zlango to Europe and Asia over the next year, with the US to follow.

“America is a unique market, a little stunted. Americans are not texting as much as the rest of the world, it’s not yet a mature market, and cell phones are still relatively new,” said Lorch.

In time though, in Israel as well as the US, Zlango is bound to change the way we understand language in a way that has not happened in a long time. The company’s name, – standing for lingo, slang and language all at once – actually stems back to a man who had this dream a long time ago. The Z stands for L.L. Zamenhof, a 19th century Jewish philosopher from Poland who invented “Esperanto,” the world’s first universal language. His project failed, but the legacy lives on.

Today, Zlango reverberates with Zamenhof’s dream of bringing the world together. Perhaps it won’t become the new language of political debate, but it certainly has the potential to get the whole world laughing.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director