Vodafone rolled out a new transcoding proxy a couple months ago in the UK, their home market. Its stated aim is to make the full web available to Vodafone customers by reformatting web content designed for PCs – making it usable on mainstream mobile phones. This is not a new idea, Google has been doing this for six years. There are many other mobile transcoders, I compared 6 of them two years ago.
I’m in the US so I have no way of seeing the Vodafone transcoder in action but if it’s like the others it makes sites, that would otherwise not even load, marginally usable with a phone browser. This is a good thing but hardly a great one. Transcoded content is never as easy to use as the same content delivered by a well designed mobile web page. Vodafone doesn’t seem to believe that and have taken the unprecedented step of making all access from all handsets on their network go through their proxy by default.
Vodafone’s proxy also changes the user-agent header which is supposed to identify the browser originating the request. This has several unfortunate consequences for Vodafone’s users and for anyone in the business of delivering mobile content.
- Sites that have both mobile and desktop versions at the same url use the User-agent header to distinguish between mobile and desktop browsers. The Vodafone proxy changes the user-agent to one that is normally only sent by a desktop browser. Sites like Lifehacker, MSNBC.com, Yahoo Shopping, MocoSpace and hundreds of others that send either a mobile or a desktop version of the site depending on the User-Agent are fooled into delivering the desktop version to phones on the Vodafone network. The user experience provided by the transcoded site is invariably worse than that of a true mobile site so users suffer. The sites lose traffic because of the inferior experience and lose revenue because they aren’t able to deliver appropriate and relevant mobile advertising.
- The effect on mobile web sites that sell content like ring tones, games, themes and wallpapers is far worse. These sites absolutely depend on the user-agent to be able to deliver content that will work on the specific handset that is making the request. Not receiving the original User-Agent completely destroys the business model of any content provider.
Mobile Web developers and content providers are up in arms and rightly so about Vodafone’s actions. A grass-roots campaign has been mounted by Luca Passani, co-author of the open source WURFL library which is used by thousands of sites to determine the capabilities of phones hitting their sites. WURFL of course relies on the User-Agent. Winksite co-founder, David Harper has also denounced Vodafone’s actions as have mobile usability expert Barbara Ballard and Mobile Monday founder Mike Rowehl. Today the mainstream tech press started to pick this story up with items on Techcruch UK and InfoWorld.This is a serious issue. Vodafone is clearly wrong. As defined by the W3C, the purpose of the User-Agent header is to identify the originating browser. More importantly Vodafone is breaking a long established de-facto standard in mobile-web development that the User-Agent is the best way to identify a particular handset for the purpose of optimizing content delivery. Vodafone is breaking the mobile web. As the second largest mobile carrier in the world they have enormous power and are setting a dangerous precedent. If you are a mobile developer or user who wants to see quality content please let your voice be heard. Things you can do:
- Send an email of support to Luca (passani at eunet dot no).
- Let Vodafone know what you think by leaving a comment on their message board.
- If you have a blog, raise this issue and link to Luca’s statement.
We need to create a ruckus and use the publicity to get Vodafone to change their behavior. The proxy should not change the User-Agent and it should not be the default. Voda needs to give their users the real mobile web, unfiltered and un-transformed. The proxy should be an option to be invoked by the user only if and went it’s needed.