Verizon Wireless Tries To Grow The Mobile Web By Breaking It

from the frustration,-on-a-small-screen dept

Mobile data and web use has grown by leaps and bounds over the past year or two. One new stat says mobile data revenues are growing five times faster than voice (albeit from a much smaller base), while Facebook recently said it has 15 million active mobile users. Some operators are trying to capitalize on this interest by deploying transcoders that take standard desktop pages and transform them into something understood by more basic phones' web browsers and that can be displayed on their small screens. That's all well and good, since users often complain about the differences between the mobile web and the "real web", and their inability to surf the same sites on their phone as they do on their PC, although the transcoders often do a pretty poor job of making sites very friendly to mobile users.

One way around this is for web developers to create mobile-specific versions of their site, so they have more control over what's presented to mobile users, and many use auto-detection so that both mobile and PC users can access the relevant content at the same URL. So enter Verizon Wireless, with its long history of really grasping the mobile web, which has now deployed a transcoder. The problem is that the transcoder breaks much of the auto-detection used by mobile web developers, resulting in their work to create mobile sites being rendered useless for Verizon users, who are then served a transcoded version of their PC site. Verizon and its vendor, Novarra, say the transcoder partially follows guidelines being worked on by the W3C to cover transcoders -- the process for which started after another Novarra install, at Verizon parent Vodafone, caused similar problems. It's worth pointing out that Novarra has a representative on the W3C committee working on the guidelines, so they should be familiar with them. It's also worth mentioning that Sprint rolled out a similar transcoder earlier this year, however, they responded to feedback from the mobile web community and changed it to avoid breaking auto-detection and other problems.

On one hand, it's hard to get frustrated with Verizon for finally taking some positive steps to make the entire web available to its mobile users, even if transcoders don't always deliver the best results. On the other, it's particularly annoying to see them think that the way to do this is to undo much of the work done by web developers and content providers to make their content better for mobile users -- not to mention it's disingenuous for Verizon and Novarra to suggest they're following the W3C guidelines, as not only are they a work in progress, but forging user-agents and breaking auto-detection contravenes them. In any case, for Verizon, it's hard to see how providing users with a lackluster mobile web experience will help grow its data business. Frustrating users with poorly transcoded versions of sites, rather than versions that have been thought through by developers for mobile users, seems a poor choice. And if they really want to unleash the "desktop" web on their users, why not offer them something that does a good job of transforming it for mobile, like better browsers such as Opera Mini?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    John Duncan Yoyo, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 4:23am

    Opera Mini is an unsecure browser

    The problem with opera mini is that it breaks SSL security by decoding everything and recoding it for your phone. I wouldn't touch it for anything that needs to be truly secure. Like banking and credit cards.

    This information is from Steve Gibson's Security Now podcast.

     

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  2.  
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    mike, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 5:40am

    skyfire

    Another option, skyfire. A browser for mobile devices. Explorer is horrible.

     

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  3.  
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    tyler frieling, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 6:04am

    back in the day

    I remember several flavors of mobile-friendly standards way back in 99-01. whatever happened to those?
    Seems like there was more awareness and activity to support the mobile web user back then then there is now. Or is it a problem of finding the time to support 2 platform versions of the same content and functionality?

     

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  4.  
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    Xanthir, FCD, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 6:15am

    Re: back in the day

    I remember several flavors of mobile-friendly standards way back in 99-01. whatever happened to those?
    Seems like there was more awareness and activity to support the mobile web user back then then there is now. Or is it a problem of finding the time to support 2 platform versions of the same content and functionality?

    This is it. Keeping different forms of the same content identical and updated is a lot of work for very little reward. As well, transcoders are simply a lot better now than they used to be, so it's simply not nearly as necessary to mess around with a site solely for mobile browsers.

    Steps can certainly be taken, mind you. Hackish layouts may be difficult to transform, and "media queries" can aid in building sites that morph based on the capabilities of the viewer.

    I happen to have a Helio phone, and use Opera Mini on it. Thing works wonderfully.

     

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  5.  
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    beside the point, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 6:25am

    Re: Opera Mini is an unsecure browser

    So what if opera mini isn't good for things that need to be truly secure, NEITHER IS YOUR PHONE! If you're doing banking and credit cards from your cell phone, you have bigger problems to worry about.

     

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  6.  
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    hegemon13, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 7:05am

    What??

    "So enter Verizon Wireless, with its long history of really grasping the mobile web..."

    Really?? The same Verizon that advertises unlimited use, and then cuts you off after and unpublished 1GB limit? The same Verizon who sells their service as a mobile broadband solution, then immediately cuts off your access and refuses to turn it back on if they catch you using it for VPN while traveling?

    Sorry, but Verizon was the single worst mobile internet experience we had in the small IT company I formerly worked for. Thank goodness for their 90-day satisfaction guarantee. We turned in all our phones and went to Sprint.

     

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  7.  
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    Steve Stroh, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 7:28am

    The solution to mobile web browsing is a capable device

    ... Like the iPhone. It simply wasn't worth even trying to use the web on phones prior to the iPhone. The post-iPhone devices, like Android, and a couple of new devices from RIM - those are CAPABLE web devices with few, if any, modification needed from the web servers themselves. But transcoding... that's just an unnecessary step. Ultimately, the communication should be purely between the user and the server - the network should just be a dumb bitpipe / Stupid Network.

     

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  8.  
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    Dennis Bournique, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 8:26am

    Transcoders are insecure too.

    Great post, Carlo. Thanks for bringing this issue to a wider audience.

    Regarding the insecurity of Opera Mini. Yes, it's true Mini (and Skyfire) break the end to end security of SSL and https, but so does Verizon's Novarra transcoder and every other transcoder ever created.

    I consider Opera, Verizon and Novarra to all be reputable companies that would not intentionally compromise users' security. However, every additional third party who has access to the decrypted data stream increases the risk of a data breach through the actions of a dishonest employee or a poorly secured server. I personally avoid using any of these proxy based services with sites where I need to enter my SSN, credit card numbers or online banking passwords.

     

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  9.  
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    Carlo, Nov 21st, 2008 @ 11:41am

    Re: Transcoders are insecure too.

    Thanks Dennis. I was going to add the same point about the security of transcoders but you beat me to the punch.

    @hegemon13 -- my point exactly. I must have messed up the sarcasm tags in my post :)

     

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  10.  
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    Lord Peter Whimsy, Nov 24th, 2008 @ 11:58pm

    Who first said unlimited usage?

    Too many mobile service providers get away with this. Who was the idiot in the first place that said lets call 1GB unlimited use. Are mobile service providers employing retards. Putting a limit on something does not make it unlimited, that is a downright lie and the law should reflect this. I imagine no one has taken this issue to court yet because I am sure this would be ruled as a fraudulent misrepresentation.

     

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