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zlango-chinaIf a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is an icon on a cellphone that saves you the trouble of having to tap out words on tiny keyboards worth? For kids who are looking to express themselves creatively, as well as adults who want to save time and effort sending SMS messages, those icons are priceless; and as a result, Israeli startup Zlango‘s SMS icon service has captured the imagination – and loyalty – of users in Europe, the Carribean – and now the Far East. And while Zlango CEO Roni Haim won’t let on to the number of actual Zlango users, he does say that the company “has deals with over 30 partners,” and that the Zlango application “is available to over 350 million users, and has billions of icons in its library.”

At first glance, Zlango appears to be one of those “fun” cellphone apps. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; all of us deserve a little fun, and Zlango currently provides users with the ability to substitute icons for text, in a fun way. For example, if you want to send an SMS to a friend saying “let’s meet for coffee,” you’ll be presented with an icon for “us,” “meet,” and “coffee.” The icons are pretty much what you would expect (a cup of coffee, two cartoon people approaching each other for “meet,” etc.), but each icon is accompanied by the text it represents as a caption, so the message is accessible even to users who aren’t icon-savvy.

Users who don’t have Zlango installed have the opportunity to download it when they get a message, and Zlango messages can be received as regular text messages by any phone, even hopelessly outdated ones that can’t handle MMS messages (Zlango strips the icon out of the message, leaving the text). All messages are sent in a standard manner, and require no adjustments in the cell phone operators’ services.

The Zlango application integrates itself into your phone’s SMS interface, so you can easily call up icons when typing. Currently, Zlango is available for users in Ukraine, Portugal, Albania, Poland, Philippines, Germany, Malaysia and Jamaica, and in the coming weeks it will be available in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. Users in other countries can send messages to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking applications, as well as download a version of ICQ with Zlango built in. The company is currently working on expanding its reach into other markets, Haim says.

Behind the fun icons, however, lies a platform that could one day change phone messaging as we know it. While many of Zlango’s users are kids, adults use it too, taking advantage of its icon selection process to save themselves the trouble of having to type words. “Zlango lets you choose icons in two ways,” says Haim. “When you type letters and words, you can choose an icon that represents what you’re typing, or you can just grab icons off the application’s library.”

And that latter feature has attracted attention from numerous groups whose interest in icon messaging is far more serious than that of the teens sending fun messages. “While right now we are concentrating on our mainstream application, we have received suggestions from various organizations, including social service groups in India and Africa, who work with illiterate people, and from a group in Canada that works with ADHD children.” The groups see Zlango’s technology as one that can enable their clients to communicate more easily.

Which shows that the Tel Aviv-based company has come up with an idea that’s much more than a “fun app” for cellphones. In fact, says Haim, Zlango is more like a platform, upon which different communication applications can be built. “For example, it could be used for advertising purposes,” Haim says; that coffee cup icon could just as easily be a Starbuck’s icon, and with some API mashing-up work, a tap on the icon could open up a Google Mobile Map showing the location of the nearest coffee shops.

Working on Zlango has put sharpened the company’s sense of the problems inherent in international communication – problems that sometimes lead to major international misunderstandings. “We localize the icons for each market, in order to ensure that they are acceptable to the target audiences. For example, an icon we use of an eskimo in Spain for the term “cool,” where it is considered cute, but that symbol is taken far differently in Ukraine” – as an insult, says Haim. In order to ensure that everyone is on the same page, Zlango encourages suggestions and comments from users, and is constantly honing its icon libraries in each country to reflect the youth culture in each society.

Zlango, in fact, didn’t start out life as an icon messaging application. The developers, says Haim, were working on a “universal web language, sort of like Esperanto for the internet.” The project was too much for a small startup to take on, he says, but the technology remained, and turned into Zlango. Behind those icons lie some dramatic ideas – and with the numbers of SMS messages sent annually 4 trillion and growing, the Zlango platform will continue to grow as well.

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One Response to The Picturesque SMS

  1. I’m a little bit concerned about my Israeli acquaintances who’re vacationing in The Egyptian Sinai now. I pray that the kidnapping rumors are not true.

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