Innovations: Zlango slang

A new symbolic language? Think SMS. Minus the words.

zlango 88 (photo credit: )
zlango 88
(photo credit: )
At the entrance to Zlango's bright orange office in Ramat Hasharon, a smiling receptionist sits in front of a white board filled from top to bottom with small, colorful pictures. The opposite wall teems with even more little icons. From abstract green blocks that symbolize "things" to concrete, yellow suns, the pictures are grouped into categories. But this is not some new fad in interior design. Rather, it is literally the drawing board for the innovative minds behind Zlango - a new company that has created an iconic language for cellphone communication. Think SMS. Minus the words. As Amir Yagil explains it, "Zlango is an icon-based language that enables people to communicate using icons instead of text." Yagil, the hip, 30-something intellectual who joined me in the conference room bearing Zlango products, says that the concept originally came from the need to simplify and shorten language. Wearing glasses and a thick, silver chain that connects his wallet to a pair of dark jeans, Yagil has the smart but cool image down pat. "But before we get into definitions," he continues, "let me read you a story in Zlango that will illustrate the point." It's Little Red Riding Hood. In pictures. As Yagil clears his throat and pulls out a small booklet, my skepticism mounts. I simply cannot wrap my mind around the entire narrative being told without words. But as Yagil shows me the book with lines of tiny pictures, one after the other, printed on the page like sentences, and begins to read, a smile crosses my face. By the time he gets to line 4 (where a thumbs-up precedes a light bulb, which is followed by a quotation cloud and a hand forming "tiny," then comes a small girl dressed in red, a nondescript person in green pointing at him/herself and a person with huge arms fully extended, which all translates as "Good idea, say little Red Riding Hood, me very," I am laughing out loud. When Yagil pulls out the Ten Commandments, one of which translates as "Saturday you no make work," the point of the iconic pictorial language starts to become clearer. "We make people smile, and we have a fun application that people enjoy using," says Raz Tsafrir, whose job description reads "Zlango Evangelist." "We have been to showcases all over the world, and no matter what language people speak, they can read Zlango and it makes them laugh." In the summer of 2006, right in time for the war in Lebanon, Zlango launched its beta product in the local market. Cellcom and Pelephone partnered with Zlango to provide their users with free access to the icon-based language. "When our users send a ZMS, they pay the provider a fee similar to what they would pay for sending an SMS," explains Tsafrir. "If the receiver does not already have Zlango on his cellphone, he can download it from the Internet for free. He just has to pay their provider if they use them." One of the biggest challenges to the production of an icon-based language with more than 200 symbols is making sure that the pictures are easy to learn. "Our symbols are not necessarily recognizable," says Yagil, "but they are memorable." The example he gives is a small bird in a nest opening his beak as wide as possible to receive his food. This stands for "want." "You may not be able to tell by looking at it what it means, but once you know, you won't forget." Yoav Lorch, the founder and CEO of Zlango, says he came up with the idea to try to make language more efficient. "My background is not in hi-tech," says Lorch, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Hopkins. "I was writing and illustrating children's books and looking for a way to shrink and expand the text. I could only reduce it by 20 percent if I used letters, so I started to play with ways to get rid of the text and replace it with icons." Zlango was born in 2003. Today, more than 40 employees, mostly graphic designers, are helping to create the icons and introduce the company to international markets. "We already have 30,000 users in Israel. We're launching in the Caribbean now, and in 2007, we'll be partnering with cellphone companies in other countries," says Tsafrir. "Part of what makes Zlango so great is that it's fun and it puts people in a good mood," says Yagil. According to the Zlango team, the world is simply a better place with Zlango in it.