Luca Takes No Prisoners

Luca Passani is a mobile tech guru and the guy behind WURFL – if you don’t know, WURFL is an open source project that allows mobile developers to identify which mobile phone a mobile web page is being viewed on. In layman’s terms (the only way I understand it), this allows developers to optimise the user’s viewing experience.

WURFL works by reading the headers in the mobile web page.

Some operators have recently decided to transcode web pages viewed on their networks by a mobile phone. Their motivations for transcoding might range from pure – genuinely believing that this creates a better user experience, to frankly, rather sinister if you’re a publisher. In other words, they want to serve ads around other people’s content. Actually, this is naive as it’ll just lead to a deluge of legal cases for many years to come. Publishers believe that only they have the right to sell and benefit from advertising revenue around content they have paid to create. If you think no one could be this dim, TeliaSonera recently ran headlong into a whole bunch of trouble in Sweden for trying this very naivety.

When companies transcode, they normally use a a third party technology. And these vendors make the decision whether or not to remove the headers, upon which WURFL and thousands of developers rely. It’s not necessary to do so – it’s a choice. I believe that removing the information must make the transcoding less challenging technically, otherwise what’s the motivation, assuming you’re not going to try packaging your own ads around others’ content?

When Vodafone deployed Novarra’s transcoding technology, they did remove the headers, although there’s no suggestion that Vodafone were thinking about placing their own advertising on other people’s content at this time. Luca flipped and published a very angry rant in various public forums. He also drew up a petition “Rules for Ethical Reformatting: A Developer Manifesto” and demanded very aggressively and vociferously that the main transcoding vendors signed up and pledged themselves to his rules.

Luca attracted a lot of criticism within the mobile community. Many felt that his passion was going to backfire and that appeasement, gentle negotiation or even just resignation to fate was required. After all, that’s the approach people usually tried and if it didn’t work so well historically, maybe it would this time. Luca was told to back off and let other more moderate voices try to persuade these giant companies that they were wrong.

But conventional wisdom has proved emphatically wrong. Two of the major players, OpenWave and InfoGin, to their great credit and vision, listened to the argument, did the right thing and have actually signed the manifesto. This puts the other players, namely Novarra and ByteMobile in a very unenviable position indeed. They can either try to fight the whole developer community and explain why they take this stance to future potential purchasers of their technology. Or they can do the right thing in turn – albeit every day they delay, the more embarrassing it will be when they have to admit that they’re wrong.

While the mobile tech angle is important, it illustrates for me a very human lesson. If you really believe in something, you can change the apparently impossible. As Tim O’Reilly reminded us in an inspiring keynote at Web 2.0 today, we should all be going after the big hard problems and not settle for second best and compromises.

Declaration of interest: AdMob uses WURFL to help us serve and target advertising.

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