Vodafone UK’s Transcoding Is Still Breaking The Mobile Web

Back in June, I pointed how Vodafone UK’s newly launched “improvements” to the mobile web experience for its customers included using a transcoding system from Novarra that undoes the hard work of developers and publishers that have bothered to create mobile-specific sites that use autodetection. Instead of passing through the correct user agent from a handset, the transcoder appears as a PC web browser to sites. The site then gives up the full version of its pages, instead of the mobile-specific content its publishers have created.

Obviously Vodafone’s thinking here is to make the mobile browsing experience more rewarding for their users by making it easier for them to view whatever sites they want on their handset. That’s great — but this really isn’t a good way to go about it, since it discourages developers and publishers from creating mobile-specific version of their sites that use autodetection, so users can just visit the same URLs they’re used to visiting on their PCs. There’s some whitelist that site owners can apparently get themselves on so visitors to their sites won’t get transcoded content originally intended for viewing on PC, but that’s less ideal than simply passing along the proper content, regardless of whether the site owner’s made the effort to get whitelisted.

In any case, Vodafone’s not made any real changes or improvements to the system, and the fuss is kicking up again. Luca Passani, one of the guys behind WURFL, the open-source configuration file that helps web developers adapt their content to different mobile devices, isn’t happy at all about what Vodafone’s doing, nor with their explanation/justification for it. The story’s getting some press now, too, which will hopefully lead Vodafone to take some corrective action.

The company claims that it wants to make things better for users, but this sounds like the latest iteration of a walled-garden mentality by essentially choosing what content to present to users, and how it will be presented, rather than leaving those decisions to site owners and developers. Surely there’s a way the company can support its desire for transcoding while respecting those developers who have created mobile sites by passing through the user agent?

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