[CAIRO] A new programming language based on Arabic characters has been designed to try to open up software coding to more people from the Arab world.
The new coding language, dubbed Alb, which means heart in Arabic, has been developed by Lebanese computer scientist Ramsey Nasser, a fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York, United States.
"The central point of the project is to point out how stuck we are as an industry on a single language. I think programming should be something anyone can access equally," Nasser tells SciDev.Net.
He says that Alb demonstrates how dependent coders are on English: every software system that the new coding language interacts with is an English language system. To create a completely Arabic programming experience would require the entire history of software engineering to be rewritten in Arabic, which is practically impossible, he adds.
Computer programming is considered by different people to be an art form, a craft and an engineering discipline. It involves creating a set of instructions aimed at making computers perform specific operations or exhibit desired behaviours.
Ahitagni Mandal, an Indian web designer and mobile application developer who codes for iOS (mobile operating system) and Android platforms, says it is much easier for people to learn and use a programming language written in their native language. This means that Alb should attract more Arabic students to programming and the software sector, he adds.
"Any modern [programming] language that we use today has matured over time. It was fairly simple in the beginning and didn't have the same advanced features," Mandal says. "So, it's too early to tell if Alb will advance or not."
Mosab Ahmad, a senior software engineer at Egyptian IT firms Zobad.net and Shaghal.com, tells SciDev.Net that Alb is a "sort of social experiment" that is not technically demanding and may or may not end up being useful.
"I believe they started with the wrong assumption: that if you create an Arabic programming language, people will just use it," Ahmad says. "Unfortunately, science and technology don't work this way. The language of the dominant culture is the one used."
Alb, which is a translation of an existing programming language called Scheme, follows ARABLAN and AMMORIA coding languages as attempts to program in Arabic.
"The other Arabic languages that came before Alb were meant to be used as serious educational or engineering tools, which I think is a doomed effort. In order to write any 'real' code, you have to learn English, and that is the central problem," Nasser says.
This is because so much of the existing software systems use English, and most of new developments happen in English, Nasser says. So while useful for inspiring a new generation of coders, Alb may never lead to a replacement of English as the main coding language in the region.
On the other hand, Ahmad says, China's official operating system has many programming languages written in Chinese script. The Chinese take their culture seriously and there is a huge local market for software products produced in Chinese, he says, whereas in the Arab region, there are no such markets.
See a video about Alb: