Sprint Starts Hiding User Agents (and Breaking the Mobile Web), Too

You might remember the stink that was raised last year when Vodafone decided to break the mobile web by using a transcoder that sent sites a user agent for a PC browser, rather than the proper user agent from their customers’ mobile browsers. This renders user-agent based auto-detection useless, undoing the hard work of developers and content providers that have made an effort to make their pages mobile-friendly. The justification provided by the transcoder’s vendor is that a machine can do a better job of “following the mobile best practices” than a human; it’s not hard to see the fallacy there.

Now, Dennis over at WAP Review has discovered that Sprint has begun using Openwave’s OpenWeb transcoder — and it, too, is sending funky user agents. The transcoder, instead of sending through the native agent from the device, sends “Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; OpenWeb Opera 8.54”, breaking mobile auto-detection. Dennis also points out that unlike with other transcoding services like Mowser, there’s no way for a user to access the original, untranscoded content (an option even Vodafone supplies). He also reports that the transcoder slows down web browsing significantly on Sprint’s otherwise speedy EV-DO network, it reduces images size, and generates a lot of errors while browsing.

Sounds like a massive improvement on the mobile web experience then. The push behind transcoding stems from a desire to make the mobile browsing experience better by opening up more of the desktop web to normal mobile users. But that desire shouldn’t break the work of those who have actually bothered to create mobile sites tailored for mobile users, should it?

Update: Sprint says developers must ask for their mobile-friendly sites to be white-listed, and says it will automate the whitelisting process somehow in the near future.

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