Even before Apple importers, Yeda Ltd., decided to adopt the software he developed last week, Yinon Yamin did not doubt his project. Last month, Yamin, a 26-year old student at Ben-Gurion University, managed to create an elegant solution to a problem that disturbs thousands of Hebrew speakers who purchased Apple's popular iPod digital MP3 audio player.

Until now, when they tried to download music with Hebrew filenames, like Sarit Hadad's "Yalla, Lech Habaita Motti," the display window, built to feature the performer's name, remained blank. Choosing the bottom row of a list of English-named performers arranged according to the English alphabet, where the performer's Hebrew name always appeared as a blank, sent the user to another blank list: the names of albums the performer had produced. Clicking on one of these blank rows produced yet another blank menu of songs on the album.

Users had the options of memorizing the exact location of every "transparent" file, which did not appear on the iPod display, or replacing the Hebrew names with "user-friendly" English titles of their choice. Some users chose to transliterate titles of songs (Yalla, Lech Habaita, Motti), while others chose to translate them into English (Come on, Motti. Go home.) But no one was truly satisfied. Users who decided on a system to label their ever-increasing Hebrew digital music library, were often forced to manually replace hundreds of filenames.

The reason for the characteristic lack of Hebrew display in most digital audio players purchased in Israel is that these devices do not support Hebrew fonts - nor do they possess firmware that permits writing from right to left. The size of the market in Israel and lack of financial justification to support these additions is cited as the main reason for this deficiency. Recently, the growing digital audio player market in Israel has given rise to an increasing demand for formal solutions, and a concurrently produced array of private innovations. These solutions address the problem with different levels of success and elegance, but installing them in one's audio player poses the risk of invalidating the warranty that came with the device.

Yamin, who purchased his own iPod six weeks ago, tried a number of unsatisfactory solutions before. "I had the idea of writing `Logical Hebrew' support, which does not have to be reversed afterward. As far as the user is concerned, this is a completely invisible process, and he sees the songs as they should appear in the iTunes program and on the iPod."

Two weeks ago, Yamin introduced the first version of the software, which provides full Hebrew support with fonts and direction of language, on his Internet site. Last week, after closing the deal with the Yeda company, he temporarily took the program off the Internet. Yeda CEO Yitzhak Radoshkewitz promises that, "within a month, our site will feature official Hebrew support that does not invalidate the warranty. It must meet with Apple's approval, but we will certainly unveil the program after we have examined it in all possible situations - in the context of iTunes and other programs."

Yamin says the project was not challenging but did require an entire month of labor. "Software programs come to me easily, because that is what I do. Once I had a working version, I wrote on one of the [Internet] forums that I had a solution. People cooperated. They weren't afraid to install it to give me feedback, and that is how we examined the program in all the different devices and a variety of operating systems in order to be sure it is stable and works well. [Yamin's program supports all the regular iPod models and iPod minis.] That was nice."

Writing backwards

Other existing Hebrew solutions, which work with Apple devices, were created by Ido Mendelson, Omri Patai and Aviram Rahana. Mendelson and Patai, age 18, are the founders of HebPod.info, the first initiative to add Hebrew support. Their partnership collapsed a month ago when Mendelson decided to charge Internet surfers NIS 25 to download the program, to cover the storage costs of their download site. Patai rejected this move and left.

When Patai recently befriended Rahana, whom he met on one of the forums, they developed Israpod.net, which offers a slightly different solution to the Hebrew problem in the iPod. "We edited the original Apple firmware, and, basically, just added Hebrew fonts so that you can see the songs, the performers, the playlist and the albums. Unlike Ido's update, our update supports all languages. At first, all the titles appear backwards, but Aviram wrote a program that reverses the order of the letters after it updates the firmware. In our program, you don't have to write backwards on the computer so that the Hebrew appears correctly in the iPod."

Aren't people concerned the update will damage their iPod?

Patai: "I have never heard of anyone whose iPod was damaged by updating, and there is no instance of someone having a problem that we don't solve. Whenever there is a firmware update, we will update our own version as well."

But as previously mentioned, the Hebrew problem is not unique to Apple iPod digital audio players. Two weeks ago, Ran Cohen, a 22-year-old from Nazareth Illit launched a public battle to install Hebrew support in the iRiver audio players sold in Israel. "More than a year ago, iRiver published a guarantee that they would install Hebrew support in their devices," says Cohen, "and people bought these players. The target date was August, 2004.

"After that time passed, and we saw there were delays, all kinds of people, whom I met on the forum, and I lost patience. There was a demand on the forum to rouse the company from its apathy toward the Israeli market. So we circulated a petition. Two hundred people have signed so far. People feel they have been cheated. The petition was mainly intended to provide a venue in which to release pressure, but if some good comes out of it, that would be great. We have nothing to lose. (www.arcadia.co.il/ wizforums/display_topic_threads.asp?ForumID=7_TopicID=1592_PagePosition)

For now, there are partial solutions. Ohad Ben Hamu has developed an unofficial addition to the operating system of a certain series of audio players which creates a mirror-image Hebrew display. To use it, one has to write the names of files in reverse. This is especially irritating in the case of very long filenames. A second solution, which addresses the Hebrew problem in another series of players is an open code project entitled, "Rockbox," which creates an alternative operating system for the device. "People all over the world are working on this," Cohen says hopefully. "and they now offer the Hebrew support that is needed, but this is still in the development phase, and it is an unofficial break into the device. It is important to us that there be official support because of the warranty."

Total guarantee

Noam Amit, of the Arcadia Company that imports iRiver in Israel, responds, "All iRiver products support reversed Hebrew. We offered a total guarantee to anyone who attempts to install Hebrew in every imaginable forum. And even if the system crashes, we will replace the device. No one has appeared yet with a damaged device, but we did take care of one individual whose device crashed."

What is your opinion of the petition? People say they feel cheated.

Amit: "I have also signed the petition. We are in negotiations with the company, but I understand from them that they will not make a change in Israel, as long as they have not made a change in the Arab world. For us, as importers, the cost is too high."

Hard-drive based MP3 player producers Sony and Archos, who play a significant role in the local digital audio player market, provide an even less successful solution to the problem of Hebrew. Ayal Daniel, of the Spyshop store, which sells French Archos products, says, "We received approval from Archos and we are working on it, but it will not be immediate. It will take at least two or three months."

Boaz Ophir, director of the audio department in the Ispar company, which imports Sony products, refuses to commit the company to any period of time. According to him, "Right now, there is no Hebrew support in our audio players, and I do not have an answer for when there will be one. We are positively considering this, but, based on our experience, this is not the most important factor for our clientele. It is somewhere in the middle of their list of priorities. If there is Hebrew support, it will not be in half measures. If we do it, we will do it all, including all the menus in the userface, in a very serious way. This involves a very large investment."