Vodafone Tech Change Stings Mobile Web Designers

Mobile developers around the world are in an uproar over a change Vodafone Group PLC has made in the U.K. that dramatically decreases the quality of their products and that they fear could prevent new and innovative mobile services from reaching the market.

Wireless Ink Corp., a New York-based company operating a service called Winksite that lets anyone develop their own mobile Web page, is one company impacted by the change.

Winksite has a Web site that visitors can access from their PCs to sign up for a service that lets them build mobile Web pages. When users visit the Winksite page from their mobile phones, they see a totally different Web site that lets them view and discover sites developed by other Winksite users, said David Harper, the founder of Winksite.

But since the change at Vodafone, U.K. mobile Winksite users instead see a reformatted version of the PC Web site.

That's because Vodafone recently implemented new technology from Novarra Inc. that is designed to reformat Web sites that were created only for PC users for better display on mobile phones. But mobile service developers say that when Vodafone installed the new technology, it also began stripping out the user agent string when mobile phones access Web sites. The user agent allows a Web site that is designed for mobile phones to detect the type and capabilities of the phone visiting the site, much like the way that Web sites detect which type of browser a visitor has. The user agent string allows a mobile site publisher to deliver a view of the Web site that is optimized for the particular phone.

In addition, companies that sell ring tones or graphics rely on the user agent to determine which content to send to the user that will work on their phone, Harper noted.

Companies that are on Vodafone's "white list," which is a group of Vodafone-approved services, were notified of the change and the operator is passing the user agent correctly for those services, developers say. Some developers complain that it's difficult to find out how to get on the white list, it can take several months to get added and that Vodafone requires white list companies to make certain changes to the way the included sites operate.

If all operators had a similar process, service providers like Harper would have to get on the approved list for every operator around the world. That's comparable to asking any Web service to be approved by every ISP in the world in order to operate.

"If this were to spread from carrier to carrier it would be horrible," Harper said. About ten percent of his traffic comes from the U.K. He worries that small mobile companies that are solely targeting the U.K. will be even harder hit. Winksite users include individuals as well as companies like Warner Music Inc. which uses the service to build Web sites for music artists.

It's unclear if Vodafone removed the user agent capability for "diabolical" reasons, such as to maintain firm control over the content that users can access, or if it was a legitimate mistake, Harper said. On a developers forum hosted by Vodafone, one poster who appears to work for Vodafone has defended the move and said that most customer feedback has been positive. He also said that many other European operators are in the process of implementing similar technologies.

Vodafone was not available for comment after its regular business hours.

Lucca Passani, a mobile services developer who has blogged extensively about the problem, worries that if Vodafone hasn't gotten user complaints, there's a simple reason. "The great majority of consumers won't realize that they have been deprived of a service and will not complain," he wrote.

Harper and other developers don't take issue with the technology that can translate sites designed for PCs but they say that Vodafone doesn't need to block the user agent string for mobile sites in order to support that capability.

"The bottom line is, they've done something a bit evil and they need to fix it," Harper said.

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