Getting your iPod right (to left)

Ben-Gurion University student Yinon Yamin: My accomplishment is that thousands of people are using my software as a solution.If you can teach a monkey to speak sign language, can you teach an iPod to speak Hebrew? One Israeli university student …

Ben-Gurion University student Yinon Yamin: My accomplishment is that thousands of people are using my software as a solution.If you can teach a monkey to speak sign language, can you teach an iPod to speak Hebrew? One Israeli university student has proven the answer to be yes.

When Ben-Gurion University computer science student Yinon Yamin, 26, first bought his iPod, he discovered that the popular music player was as wonderful as everyone had said it would be – except for one major problem. Whenever he uploaded a song by one of his favorite Israeli bands, the information wasn’t displayed on the screen of the device because it was written in Hebrew.

“I got the iPod, and realized that I couldn’t see songs in Hebrew. As someone who listens to music in Hebrew, I looked for a solution, and I didn’t find it,” Yamin told ISRAEL21c.

One possible solution would have been to transliterate the titles (“Yalla Lech Habaita Moti”), or maybe translate them (“Come On Moti Go Home”). But Yamin discovered there are a myriad of ways to transliterate or translate any given song title, which creates a problem when searching for songs on the Internet.

Yamin was not the first to notice the problem. Over one thousand Israeli iPod owners had already signed an online petition, pleading with Steve Jobs and Apple to add Hebrew support to their music player and threatening a boycott until they did.

But Yamin did better than that.

The same week that he bought his iPod, Yamin had a little free time in between classes at BGU where he was in his last semester of his undergraduate studies. More than just a dabbler when it comes to computers and programming (“I’ve been working with computers from year zero,”) he wrote a short program that did two things: it added Hebrew letters to the iPod’s software, and secondly, it switched the direction of the letters when Hebrew was displayed.

When he finished the program, he loaded it up onto his iPod and enjoyed the luxury of reading his favorite artists’ names – Shlomo Artzi and the band Mashina – in Hebrew, and with the letters in the correct direction, no less. Then he set it aside and forgot about it for a little while.

At the same time, he had been working on a program allowing a computer with a normal broadband connection to act as a file server to a large number of clients – something that’s usually only possible with a powerful machine and very fast connection. Yamin set up a web site to distribute the program, and just for kicks, decided to post the iPod update as well to see if other people thought it was useful at all.

“I was only expecting to get maybe fifty or a hundred people to download it and try it,” he said.

But a week later, his expectations had been radically exceeded. Thousands of Israeli iPod owners downloaded and raved about the program, and it received extensive coverage in Israeli press and television. Yamin used the feedback he got to improve and fix various bugs in the update. Soon enough, he was contacted by Yeda Inc., Apple’s Israeli distributor.

He sold the program to Yeda on the condition that it remained free for all to download and use, just as it had been when he distributed it. He continues to provide support for and updates to the program.

“My accomplishment is that thousands of people are using my software as a solution,” Yamin said. “And unlike other solutions, mine doesn’t void the manufacturer’s warranty. Developing for the Mac was also a professional challenge, since it was new to me.”

Although Yamin was not the first person to try to add Hebrew support to the iPod, his solution is thus far the only one to receive official support from Apple. Previous attempts to add Hebrew support to the player added Hebrew characters to the player’s software, but didn’t address the problem of text being displayed from right-to-left – meaning that music aficionados had to write song titles backwards in Hebrew in order for them to be displayed correctly on the iPod.

Other Israelis with a love for music and programming have applied themselves to solving the same program on other portable music players, but none so far have created as complete a solution as Yamin did.

For example, many Israelis bought the popular iRiver music player, for example, amid promises from the company that Hebrew support would be added within a year. But the company didn’t stand by its word, so individuals took matters into their own hands.

A simple solution that adds Hebrew characters to the iRiver but doesn’t address the problem of right-to-left text is available. A second solution provides complete support for Hebrew but requires that the user install an alternative operating system on the device, putting it out of reach in terms of your average Joe – or Yossi’s – technical skills.

“I would happily write Hebrew support solutions for other devices if there was enough user demand,” said Yamin.