Monday, August 25, 2008

Yamli: Revolutionizing the Arabic-language World Wide Web

American University of Beirut Alumnus and co-founder of Yamli, the Arabic search engine, Talks to Engineering Students

AUB alumnus Habib Haddad (CCE 2002) found inspiration in the 2006 July War even as it wreaked havoc in the country.

AUB Press Release [August 7, 2008]

Read a full interview with Yamli founders Habib Haddad and 'Imad Jureidini at, as the two discuss how the search engine was founded, how it works, and what lies ahead.

NOTE: Yamli is an Arabic search engine which allows users to type in Arabic using English letters and keys, each of which has an Arabic letter equivalent. Thus, typing in "H-I-Z-B A-L-L-A-H" will produce the Arabic words: حزب الله

Yamli is very useful for those without an installed Arabic language keyboard or for those less adept at typing in Arabic, due to the different placement of the letters compared to an English language keyboard. Yamli
is also an optional addition to Facebook. I have Yamli installed on my Facebook account.

Based in the United States and eager to devour every bit of news on Lebanon to keep track of events that might be affecting loved ones, Haddad turned to the world wide web for information. But he was disappointed to find very little on Lebanon in English, realizing that he needed to tap into the Arabic news world online.

But that left him with another problem: his American keyboard was not Arabic-enabled. [In any case, his Arabic typing skills were limited.]

So instead of throwing his arms up in desperation, Haddad decided to do something about it.

Thus came the idea for web-based transliteration tool that can convert Arabic words typed in Latin script into ones written in Arabic letters.

Haddad joined forces with his friend Imad Jureidini, also a computer engineer, and co-founded Language Analytics, a US-based internet start-up which launched in 2007.

Habib Haddad (left) and 'Imad Jureidini (right).

The new technology has already won the Best Web Technology, 2008 Pan Arab Web Awards in April 26, 2008.

"Our vision is to empower the Arabic web," said Haddad, during a talk he held at AUB recently. "The first step was to help facilitate typing in Arabic. The second step is to encourage creating Arabic content, because right now, the Arabic digital culture is endangered."

Entitled "From Idea to Reality," the talk was held on August 4 in the Engineering Board Room. It also addressed steps needed for creating a startup including forming the team, financing the project, using the right software engineering principles and getting the appropriate protection for your ideas. The talk drew on Haddad and Jureidini's key entrepreneurial experiences and the steps they took to convert from a concept into an active startup.

According to Haddad, less than one percent of all blogs are in Arabic, even though Arab internet users make up about 5 percent of all worldwide users. "In fact, studies at the American University in Cairo shows that 78% of Arabic internet users have never typed in Arabic! Imagine if 78% of French never typed in French," he said.

So Haddad and his partner are also partnering with Google to help improve Arabic search engines so that they could recognize different Arabic dialects and distinguish words phonetically even if typed in Latin script.

As a student, Haddad was inquisitive and full of ideas, he says. "If you have an idea, talk to professors, entrepreneurs, well-established people, but believe in yourself and do your research. Partner with someone who complements you, and brings something you don't have on the table."

Haddad also encouraged young graduates to think out of the box. "There is this misconception in Lebanon and the Middle East in general that you always need to work at the biggest and most famous company as soon as you graduate, but in fact you will learn more from small companies and start-ups, where you can build very strong relationships and connections with successful people," he said.

Haddad expressed his gratefulness for the education he received at AUB, saying: "What I really like about AUB is that they teach you to get down and dirty your hands in the actual engineering. They did us a big favor by walking us through the nitty-gritty basics before showing us the big picture."

In particular, he named Dr. Ayman Kaysi, the chair of the electrical and computer engineering department, as one of the professors who motivated him most and helped him develop his ideas.

Moreover, he said that the final-year-project, which all engineering students have to submit, is something every student should take advantage of.

"It's a chance to actually start building something, and it's a learning experience that is truly valuable."

Haddad told students not to give up in the face of failure. "In our culture, a failure is considered shameful, whereas in the start-up culture it is only a learning experience."

Haddad has other things on his plate, too. He has also co-founded Inlet-International Network of Lebanese Entrepreneurs and Technologists. Moreover, he also founded ReliefLebanon a grass root effort aimed at supporting the relief efforts in Lebanon during the July 06 war.

Haddad holds a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer graphics from the University of Southern California, in addition to his engineering degree from AUB.

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