Why Right-To-Left matters?

Disclaimer: not good at adding pictures

Almost 8 years ago I started learning web concepts and techniques, but it was not as easy as it sounds, back then in Tunisia, and in Tozeur the city I lived at, most people couldn’t afford a computer, let alone an Internet connection.
And I remember my mother working so hard to afford the price of a computer because she saw and knew how obsessed I was with such a technology. But the story didn’t stop there, because even after getting the device I couldn’t connect to the Internet because it was so hard to get and so expensive. So I was using the Dial-Up Internet access service for about 5 hours a month where the hour costed 1/2 USD (1 TND) (and that was pretty expensive at the time), and the funny thing about all of that is whenever I am connected I would spend the entire hour trying to download this one or two books about HTML or JavaScript so when I’m disconnected I’d start reading and learning.

Today, being a young web developer and working on Firefox OS, I keep reminding myself of that “era” of time and keep telling myself and others that there are other people that are already still in that same situation, where they can’t afford the price of a laptop or a smart phone that helps them connect to the Internet and see with their own eyes what they hear everyone else keep talking about in that virtual world.

And that’s where Firefox OS comes to action (and I consider myself so lucky for working and contributing with the makers of the web, those who aim to break the barriers between the people and the Internet), since the very beginning we aimed at making an operating system that is not around to mainly compete with top-tear high-end super-expensive smart devices, but rather be able to be installed on cheap smart phones and still have the ability to access the Internet, so people who don’t have 600$ to buy an iPhone can still use Facebook, Wikipedia or whatever service they *dream* about getting access to.

And we’ve been launching in developing countries’ markets like South America, some parts of Europe and Asia and even Africa. But that’s not all of it. There are still more people that want and need to get online, in other countries like Middle East and North Africa where people wouldn’t necessarily understand English or French, where some of them would only understand Arabic or Farsi, or Hebrew; But we couldn’t launch there not because there wasn’t those languages available, but rather because these languages behave in a completely different way and require a complete different set of UIs in order for them to be readable.

Those UIs are called RTL, or Right-To-Left User Interfaces, the main reason of that naming is because those languages start from the right instead of the left. And natives would open books from the right instead of the left side too.
And even existing alternatives like cheap Android phones were never perfect enough in their RTL implementations, and at the same time phones that had a good implementation were feature phones with no Internet access.

So not implementing such UIs would still leave a large part of the world either partially and badly connected or completely offline and stuck with their feature phones.

I always took the matter personally because I knew exactly what it’s like to be there, kept raising awareness about how important RTL was, and since Mozilla has always believed that Internet is a human right and not something exclusive for the rich and powerful, everyone (individuals, carriers, companies) was on board and there we are at Phoxygen signing off the first RTL-compatible Firefox OS version a couple of weeks ago and it getting readied to be shipped across the Middle East and North Africa.

So until we accomplish the mission of getting the world online, there will always be people around telling you how important RTL is and that you should really consider having it in your products if you truly believe in what we as a non-profit working for the public-benefit believe in.