Similarities between the Arabic and Hebrew languages have enabled groups of Israeli and Arab developers to assist each other in solving common problems developing local versions of OpenOffice.org software.
Both languages are bidirectional, that is, the usual script is written from right to left but numbers, dates or embedded Western text, are written from left to right.
Jonathan Ben Avraham, the chief executive officer of Israeli company Tk Open Systems, which works on developing the Hebrew OpenOffice.org project, said that although conflict is never far away from his Jerusalem-based office, these issues are put aside by those who work on the project.
"Although there is conflict going on outside the window, when you get down to the business, or engineering level, there is a remarkable amount of cooperation," said Avraham. "For open-source software, this cooperation is carried out through mailing lists and forums and has almost no political overtones."
Munzir Taha, a developer on the Arabic OpenOffice.org project, said that working together has ensured they do not waste time and effort solving the same problem twice. "In terms of bidirectional support, Arabic and Hebrew face the same problems. A problem solved for one language automatically helps support for the other language support, which is good." said Taha.
But, there are some differences between the languages; for example, the letters in Arabic script are joined up, while in Hebrew they are not, said Taha. Other local differences include the need for different calendars, spell checkers, grammar checkers and document templates, said Avraham.
So far, both projects have passed important milestones. Version 1.1.0 of Hebrew OpenOffice.org was released in January 2004 and version 1.1.3 of OpenOffice.org contained a complete Arabic translation, according to Avraham and Taha respectively.
But, Avraham believes that the Hebrew version of OpenOffice.org still needs considerable work before it has the depth of functionality that Microsoft Office provides. "Microsoft Office provides very good Hebrew support. In OpenOffice.org we are a year or two behind them," said Avraham.
The Arabic team is also facing numerous issues, which they are struggling to resolve with limited resources. "OpenOffice.org is still facing many issues with regard to Arabic support. Without resolving those issues, OpenOffice.org is not very useful for serious work in the Arabic community. Unfortunately, there seem to be very few developers who work to resolve those issues," said Taha.
He warns that some of these issues have been delayed beyond OpenOffice.org 2.0, due to the lack of resources.
One of the main issues which Avraham wants to resolve is improving compatibility with Microsoft Office, so that documents created in MS Office can be opened in OpenOffice.org, and so documents created in OpenOffice.org can be saved in MS Office format. This is made more complicated by the assumption of a left to right page layout in the original version of OpenOffice.org, which affects text and object alignment.
Avraham hopes that import and export facilities will be greatly improved in OpenOffice.org 2.0. Another improvement will be the ability to switch languages on the fly, a useful facility in Israel where there are four major languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English, according to Avraham.
Arabic and Hebrew are two of 30 language projects listed on the OpenOffice.org Web site. In addition to these projects, a South African organisation is working on translating the office productivity application into the 11 official languages of South Africa.