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Handhelds Communications The Internet Hardware

Vodafone Move Invites Web Development Chaos 192

hoagiecat writes "Web developers want mobile phone users to be able to access their sites, but mobile browsers generally choke on heavyweight HTML put together for traditional Web browsers. A host of services have sprung up that allow two sites — one for mobile users, one for PC users — to coexist at the same URL, with the browser's user agent string distinguishing between the two. Vodafone has come at the problem from the other end, offering a new service that translates traditional Web pages into mobile-friendly ones on the fly — but it strips out the user agent in the process, breaking sites designed around the other strategy. And Web developers are mad. Will similar moves by other carriers disrupt this nascent Web development ecosystem?"
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Vodafone Move Invites Web Development Chaos

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  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @05:28AM (#20740409)
    Because I'd love to do without the feature (read: crap) heavy pages and go straight to the content.
    • yep. spoof the ua string.
    • most of those heavy pages don't really have any content anyway, why bother ?
    • by bateleur ( 814657 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @07:06AM (#20740899)
      Straight to the content would be nice, but be careful what you wish for... There's no way advertisers are going to accept the idea that mobile versions of pages have no ads. With the screen area so small what will happen is that ads will appear on separate screens before the content you're trying to view.

      Desktop browser ads are mild by comparison. They sit at the top or the side, easily ignored. The worst they ever manage is to waste a bit of bandwidth. I predict people with more powerful phones will soon be spoofing non-phone user agents in an effort to dodge the evil phone versions of ad-supported pages.
    • by elementik ( 622741 ) <steve.elementik@net> on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @07:36AM (#20741049) Homepage
      Why dont people just use media="screen|handheld|print" along with optimised code to a) reduce the amount of code sent in the first place, and b) position it properly based on the client I realise you have to download the same amount of HTML which might not be optimised for slower connections but seriously ... isnt that the entire purpose of the media="" attribute ??
      • I realise you have to download the same amount of HTML which might not be optimised for slower connections

        Which is the entire point. Imagine the use case of reading an article on Wikipedia, let's say a long one such as Tetris [] or George W. Bush []. On a PC with a full-page screen, full CPU, full RAM, and a transfer cap in the tens of gigabytes per month, you want to load the article's full text. On a handheld device with a smaller screen, smaller CPU, smaller RAM, and a smaller transfer cap, you may want to load just the lead section and the table of contents, then load other sections only once you follow a link f

        • The solution would be the Accept header []. Just add a parameter like a media type. Of course clients and servers need to understand such a parameter, but it wouldn't be hard to add.
          • The solution would be the Accept header. Just add a parameter like a media type.

            An Internet media type [] is the same thing as what used to be called a "MIME type". HTML with one page per section and HTML with the whole article on one page are both of type text/html;charset=utf-8, regardless of the size. How would you propose extending HTTP to add Accept-Length:?

            Of course clients and servers need to understand such a parameter

            Good luck. A lot of shared hosting companies give so little of a damn about conforming to web standards that they insert invalid HTML into every page that they serve and won't add new Internet media types except to customers on

      • Probably for the same reason we don't have an attribute to define which browser the style is for or an attribute to define what screen size, orientation, and color depth th style is for. Most developers are to lazy to use such tools and those that aren't are mostly purists that don't think making multiple versions of content for different uses is acceptable.

        Of course it's even worse on phones because most don't properly support the media attribute. They'll either use the screen style or, worse, use both the
  • So what else is new? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @05:37AM (#20740459)
    As a Vodafone "business" customer for the last 15 months, Vodafone is doing exactly what the article claims:

    Companies that are on Vodafone's "white list," which is a group of Vodafone-approved services, were notified of the change and the operator is passing the user agent correctly for those services, developers say. ... It's unclear if Vodafone removed the user agent capability for "diabolical" reasons, such as to maintain firm control over the content that users can access, or if it was a legitimate mistake, Harper said.

    The issue at Vodafone is they need a revenue engine that cannot be hampered so they artificially create one. With the recent court rulings over VoIP services like Truphone, Vodafone is seeing disruptive technologies come into play. This is just business doing the right thing for itself but not for the customer.

    For what it is worth, within the group of people I work with (about 2000 people), many of us are using Truphone over the wireless broadband we are provided. Suddenly, my 400-600 pound mobile bills are now down to 50/month with loads of unused minutes rolling over. The story is similar with many other people here and across other networks. Are you surprised?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by empaler ( 130732 )
      Actually, Opera Mini also does a good job of pounding down the transferred data (YMMV, of course)
  • It also hides the original Accept header, and presents a different list of MIME types. To make the problem even worse, it then refuses to pass across files that the phone would be perfectly capable of accepting. For an in-house site I work on, it broke our ability to deliver compiled WMLScript (application/vnd.wap.wmlscriptc) to phones that are perfectly capable of executing the scripts.
    • Vodaphone have two gateways - the internet gateway, which is unfiltered, and the WAP gateway, which rerenders the page to fit well on a mobile phone. Both have their place, and I prefer different ones for different sites.

      Many sites simply will not render well on a phone, no matter how html compliant their browsers are (and most modern phones have full featured browsers these days). The vodophone gateway makes these usable (and for older phones with only WAP browsers it makes browsing actually possible).

  • Revenue stream (Score:4, Interesting)

    by myxiplx ( 906307 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @06:15AM (#20740665)
    Hmm... I wonder how this fits in with Vodafone's charging.

    By breaking the functionality that allows operators to display the mobile optimised pages, they are forcing people to download more content. Even if they only charge for the amount transmitted to the mobile after they've processed it, that's still likely to be significantly more data than people would have had with the optimised pages. And if they charge for the size of the original page (and I wouldn't put it past them), they really are ripping people off.

    Either way, I would not be happy with this change if I was on a limited data tarrif.
  • by Random BedHead Ed ( 602081 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @06:22AM (#20740695) Homepage Journal

    A host of services have sprung up that allow two sites -- one for mobile users, one for PC users -- to coexist at the same URL, with the browser's user agent string distinguishing between the two.

    Don't I know it. I use a BlackBerry to surf the web most mornings on the train, and I see these all the time. I've learned to avoid some links specifically because I don't want to waste my time trying to navigate a crappy mobile version of a site. For example, I no longer click on any Reuters or USA Today news links on Slashdot or Digg, because rather serve me the article I asked for, these sites entirely ignore the URL I sent it and drop me on their mobile page, from which (I guess) I'm expected to navigate to the thing I originally wanted. Unfortunately the mobile page contains links to news categories and a list of the most popular stories, and it's usually impossible to find the one I wanted. Many news sites use similar services. The big provider seems to be Crisp Wireless [], which proudly announces its responsibility for this crapiness at the bottom of each mobile page.

    My newest pet peeve is the BBC News site. If I type "" in my desktop browser I get the BBC News page. But on my BlackBerry the site ignores the URL and "helpfully" redirects me to a page where I can select whether I want their Mobile or Desktop edition. It's nice that I at least get an option, but it adds a page load to the process of simply reading the news. And when I select the Desktop link they send me to the main BBC site, not the News site, so I get to make a third page load when I click on the News link to visit the page I originally requested about a minute ago.

    How are these mobile sites supposed to help us again?

    • as viewed by Ari Jaaksi [] of N800 notoriety:

      It amazes me that I still see signs of this thinking. Web pages and services are tailored to small screens and people expect that to create the mobile internet. It won't. There is only one internet, and if your device cannot access it, you're out of luck. There is only one internet.

      Sure, we can make some sites for mobile phones, but, come on, mobile-phone formatted pages never caught on. It's like camera phones: there might be a case where you can use them, but un

      • by curunir ( 98273 ) *

        Since there's little interest, there's little hope a "Standard" way will come about.

        There's little hope that another standard will come out, but since we already have one, that's not really necessary.

        There's absolutely no good reason why a website should sniff the user-agent string to determine which page to serve. Instead, the page should use CSS layout and make use of the CSS handheld media type. This allows the provider to make intelligent decisions about which page to serve. The provider will know what

        • by DingerX ( 847589 )
          Damn straight. CSS is my route. But, heck, do you know how hard it is to set up a CSS in most idiot-centric web page utilities? They all default to pixels, and some stop there. Talk about moronic! I mean, hell, there ain't no standard on the size of a pixel on the screen! Higher-level, platform independent nerdity depends on relative measurements, not something entirely useless like the number of pixels. An absolute that is variable in an unpredictable way does not help: that's the worst kinda engineer-thin
  • Basically, the sites affected have two (or more) versions of their site and choose which one to serve depending on the user agent. So in the case, as this, when the browser or proxy agent does not give a useful user agent, don't try to get the mobile company to help you; they obviously are not interested; fall back to ASKING THE USER HIMSELF: just have a little (or big) check box: "click here for desktop, click here for mobile" page. Then store the preferece in the URL and/or cookies (do mobile browsers s
  • How does Opera Mini handle user-agent? I understand it also does a server-side transformation of a webpage. Do web developers serve a special version of the page to Opera Mini?
  • IMHO, everybody who has developed sites for their mobile portal and had contact with Vodafone's PartnerML should know that Vodafone has always been weird on the technical side when it comes to WAP and mobile web.
  • by iBod ( 534920 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @06:43AM (#20740779)
    The site content shouldn't need to change - only the presentation.

    All that needs to be done is to serve up a different style sheet depending on the user agent, or a default 'safe' stylesheet, or none at all.

    Determining which style sheet to use will necessitate peeking at the user-agent so Vodaphones approach could be problematical. Maybe if they had a meta tag to tell their gizmo not to process the site.
    • by suv4x4 ( 956391 ) on Tuesday September 25, 2007 @07:09AM (#20740927)
      The site content shouldn't need to change - only the presentation. All that needs to be done is to serve up a different style sheet depending on the user agent, or a default 'safe' stylesheet, or none at all.

      As someone who's been through that: it doesn't work.

      You see, the mobile stylesheet has suspiciously many entries of "display:none" if you go this way. Which means you discard many of the non-essential elements for the mobile version and reorder the rest to fit a mobile screen, but the mobile users still download the entire damn thing.

      And downloading things you don't even SEE is far from perfect for the expensive/slow access points on a mobile device.

      Certainly nice that CSS has the feature, but it's not the ultimate solution.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TLLOTS ( 827806 )
        A lot of that really depends on the kind of content you're talking about. For example, on a page with numerous large images one might consider inserting place-holder elements onto which a background image is set via css. By taking this approach you're able to avoid inserting the images directly and instead give css considerably more power in presenting your page to different media types.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by mha ( 1305 )
          By doing this you use CSS for content rather than style! What a great "solution" - count me out.
      • by iBod ( 534920 )
        Yes, agreed.

        It's almost impossible to use CSS to satisfactorily modify a site that hasn't been designed to cater for mobile devices from the ground up.

        If you're ending up with a load of 'display: none' then it begs the question of what value that content had in the first place if you can omit it and still have a useful site. Most of that would be decorative graphics I guess.

        If you provide graphics using the CSS 'background' attribute instead of the html img element then it doesn't get sent if 'background:
        • by suv4x4 ( 956391 )
          If you're ending up with a load of 'display: none' then it begs the question of what value that content had in the first place if you can omit it and still have a useful site. Most of that would be decorative graphics I guess.

          You know it's not just decorative graphics. Comments, related articles, breaking news index, search with advanced filters, videos, photos, lots of things.

          Those things ARE useful if you have the place for them, and make the site easier to browse and more accessible, but just not on a mo
      • Presumable in vodafones case its the _proxy_ (which presumably has a direct wired connection) thats downloading "everything", and probably stripping the nonessential items out when relaying it over vodafone's network to the phone itself.
    • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
      You don't get it. They just want to be able to serve Flash application of different sizes.

      I wish I was joking.
    • This is a bad idea. While there is an issue about how content is displayed, there is also an issue about how much content there is.

      What is needed is a new (proposed) HTTP request header that passes the media types (classes) to the server. Then instead of trying to guess the media type from the user agent string, the server will know for sure. For example a request might have the HTTP header "MediaType: display/mobile;geometry=288x384" and a 2nd header "MediaType: audio/stereo;format=mp3,ogg,flac". The

  • That's why I set up my .mobi site alongside my main one, to present a more appropriate (read: smaller, faster, search box at the bottom) view for mobile browsers. I don't have to guess or translate anything and nore does Vodafone: for this URL I generate .mobi-compliant XHTML straight off.

    Other than V managing to content block me from one of my own sites in Australia for a while (even though I have content blocking turned off and there's nothing dodgy about the site) their service seems to work quite well.
  • If there's one thing I've learned from working in the mobile telephone industry for the past year, it's that mobile service providers and indeed, mobile handset manufacturers, have their heads so far up their asses so as to be completely out of touch with the rest of the world.

    They understand their customers fairly well, but they show complete contempt for third party software developers and existing Internet and communications infrastructures. They lobomotise almost every new useful feature in the face of
  • I'm a web developer and I don't whine about chaos when someone's trying to work on my problems.

    It's a simple one liner to set the right flag in your code if either the right URL or user agent is detected.

    Given the mess we're used to when doing web dev work, panicking about this is laughable.
  • So... this only broke websites where programmers blindly accepted user input and trusted it, right?
  • Don't see how this is news. Google Mobile has been doing this for at least a year. Any links to external sites that originate on my homepage are automatically "mobile-i-fied" by Google. You can disable the service in your preferences I believe if you want the full size page.

    Personally I love the service since it saves me valuable bandwidth and time.

    I do not know if Google respects these special User-Agent strings for mobile-specific site versions - and frankly, as a user, as long as the site w
    • by jrumney ( 197329 )
      This is news because Vodafone is not a third party service that the user specifically seeks out, like Google mobile and Opera mini. Vodafone is a network operator, and their customers get this by default without asking for it. Fro the majority of websites, which do not care about mobile users, this is a good thing, but some developers prefer to convert their pages to mobile versions themselves, and Vodafone is taking control over mobile presentation out of the hands of these content owners. IANAL, but it se
      • It is not copyright infringement because the content has not been nodified.

        The CONTENT is just HTML code. Just because your website looks a certain what in your IE browser doesn't mean it looks the same when I view it in Lynx.

        Does that mean I am guilty of copyright infringement because the site does not look the same as when you created it? Is it copyright infringement when a deaf person watches a film because they are modifying it by removing the sound?!?!?

        Like I said above - site owners need to get their
        • by jrumney ( 197329 )

          It is not copyright infringement because the content has not been nodified.

          Of course it is modified. What point is there in having a "transcoding proxy" in the way, if it is not modifying the content that is passing through?

          • by brunes69 ( 86786 )
            It is not modifying the content it is just modifying the markup. You can't copyright markup. If you could I would have copyrighted long ago.
      • So its a service that vodafone is providing to its users that allows them (at least theoretically) to automatically have *all* websites converted for better viewing on their phone (and possble even using a better transform, since presumably vodafone has more knowledge of the capabilities of its customer's phones than some random website might).

        A web server/site doesnt have any intrinsic right to know what type or version of browser that is accessing it: User-Agent is voluntary. And quite frankly, I'd like t
  • by FonkiE ( 28352 )
    well if the vodafone life proxy connects always switch to the mobile versions of the site. this is simple. and just change the css if possible.
  • Firstly, if you are differing content based upon the User-Agent header, you are doing it wrong. The User-Agent header was intended for bug workarounds, not feature queries. If you want to know if a browser supports a particular document type, you use the Accept header.

    Secondly, another person posted that they block the Accept header. That's a real problem.

    Thirdly, proxies that alter content are nothing new. There is an HTTP header that allows authors to mark content that should not be altered by

  • "And Web developers are mad"

    You're telling me. Oh, wait, you meant the other kind of mad. Nevermind

New systems generate new problems.