I have an update on the Openwave OpenWeb transcoder that US CDMA/EVDO provider Sprint rolled out last month. This time the news is good. To recap, the transcoder is intended to make full PC websites usable with the limited browsers of feature phones - which it does. But it also had a negative effect on the usability and appearance of some mobile web sites and broke many off-portal ringtone, wallpaper, game sites to the point that content downloads stopped working.
This is after similar problems with transcoders implemented last year by Vodafone in the UK, Ireland and Portugal which are still largely unresolved. The mobile web development community, lead by WURFL co-creator Luca Passani, reacted by creating a document called Rules for Responsible Reformatting: A Developer Manifesto which offered suggestions on how content reforming could work without harming sites and services created specifically for mobile browsers
Unlike Vodafone and its transcoding partners Novarra and ByteMobile, Openwave and Sprint responded to the Developer Manifesto by opening a dialog with Luca and other developers to work out a compromise where some of the language in the manifesto was softened and Openwave agreed to sign the Manifesto. Within 24 hours a second transcoding vendor, InfoGin also signed.
Yesterday Sprint and Openwave held a webcast and open chat on Sprint's Application Development Portal to discuss OpenWeb and present a roadmap for changes being made to meet the Manifesto's rules.
Presenters were Openwave's OpenWeb product manager Ed Moore, Geoff Martin, manger of Sprint's Mobile Web division, Sprint engineer John Davis and Raymond Reeves, head of Sprint's Application Developer Program.
Highlights of the presentation were:
- Within 5 weeks Sprint will deploy Version 2 of OpenWeb. This is an interim release designed to minimize the disruption mobile content as quickly as possible. It will implement "Mobile Fetch First" meaning that the transcoder will first request content using the browser's original unmodified headers including the User Agent. OpenWeb will only change the User Agent if the site returns an "unsupported browser" type of message or no content at all. V2 will also perform minimal or no reformatting of sites it recognizes as intended for mobiles. The minimal reformatting is only to fix invalid markup, work around browser bugs and split pages that are known to be too large for the target browser to display. PC sites will continue to get the full transcoding treatment, of course. Version 2 will still rewrite link URL's to point to the sprint.aopwv.com domain. Like Version 1, it will not have end to end encryption of traffic to secure mobile sites. The data stream from the handset to OpenWeb will be encrypted but it will be decrypted on the OpenWeb server and then re-encrypted before sending to the secure site. Opera Mini and Skweezer do the same thing and for legal reasons OpenWeb V2 will continue to show a scary all-caps warning that traffic is not encrypted end to end when logging into HTTPS sites.
Mobile Fetch First should reduce the need to whitelist mobile sites but Sprint will continue to honor the exclusion list at least until testing confirms that V2 doesn't cause any problems. One of the Sprint representatives, I think it was Raymond Reeves, apologized for the problems that the first version of OpenWeb caused for some mobile publishers and promised to continue to work with independent mobile developers to avoid similar issues with future releases.
- OpenWeb Version 3, which will be deployed on Sprint later this year, is designed to be completely transparent to mobile sites. When V3 detects that a site is valid mobile content for the user's phone it will create a direct connection between handset and site with no modification of any kind, including no link or url rewriting and end to end encryption of HTTPS sites, allowing the removal of the security warning. V3 will also respect the cache-control no-transform header, meaning sites sending that directive will never be transcoded.
Even in Version 1, OpenWeb is automatically excluding sites matching certain common mobile patterns from transcoding. There were some problems will the pattern exclusion initially but it seems to be working smoothly now. The excluded patterns are:
Sprint is urging owners of mobile sites with urls that don't match one of those patterns to submit a request be whitelisted to this thread on the Sprint Developer Portal (free registration to the portal is required). Problems related to OpenWeb should also be reported using that thread. To Sprint and OpenWeb's credit, the whitelisting processes, while not really scalable, seems to have been handled fairly. All the mobile sites that I had noticed as being transcoded, no longer are including vendors of free ringtones and other applications which compete directly with premium content on the Sprint portal.
The webcast also revealed a bit of about Sprint's future plans for it's mobile browsing offerings. The carrier, in partnership with Motricty, will be launching a new mobile portal in July to be called (cough, cough) Mobile Internet 2.0. It will give users the ability to customize their portal view to include only the content they want and will also suggest content to users based on links they have clicked in the past. Sprint has 2 million users who browse off the Sprint portal every month and the carrier wants to encourage more off portal browsing, especially by users without data plans who pay by the kilobyte. OpenWeb, by opening up the web's long tail to any mobile browser, is part of that strategy. Sprint believes that the other major US carriers have plans to implement transcoding proxies within the next 9-12 months and wanted to be first to market.
Among the questions submitted by developers in the chat some of the more interesting ones (answers in parentheses ) were:
- Any plans to transcode PDFs to html? (it's under consideration)
- Will OpenWeb be deployed to the Nextel/Boost iDEN network (probably) and to Sprint MVNOs like Virgin Mobile (possibly) .
- When was the OpenWeb V1 Rollout completed to all Sprint feature phone users? (March 21).
- Is traffic to Palm and Windows Mobile phones transcoded? (No)
- Will users be allowed to opt-out of OpenWeb? (it's being considered).
If you want to view an archived copy of the webcast and chat session they should be available within 48 hours in the Sprint Application Developer's Portal's Education Section.
I applaud OpenWave, Sprint and InfoGin for recognizing the value of off portal mobile publishers and content vendors by adopting the Manifesto's guidelines and making the recommended changes to their transcoders. Not only are they doing the right thing technically but I think they are making a smart business move. Up to now, content transformation services like Novarra, ByteMobile and OpenWeb have been getting considerable negative publicity for breaking existing mobile services. Being in compliance with a de facto standard like the "Rules for Responsible Reformatting" is a pretty good selling point when talking to carriers, don't you think?