Vodafone in mobile web storm

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An almighty row is breaking out between Vodafone and mobile startups, who claim the giant is hobbling the mobile web for its own gain.

The chorus of disapproval is being lead in the main by Luca Passani (pictured), the architect behind an open source mobile project known as WURFL.

In a long public statement written yesterday, he – and four other leading mobile web players who have backed the statement – allege that Vodafone UK is abusing its position by making many third-party mobile sites unusable. He is also carrying a “Vodasucks” logo on his site.

Specifically, Passani and his backers say Vodafone is stripping out the “essential device identification information that mobile phones send to content providers in order to let them serve customized content for each user’s device.”

The statement damns the act as being…

“Perpetrated by a large company in a dominant position against a myriad of small companies and against its own customers. An abuse that is damaging a whole industry in its infancy. I am talking about the industry of the mobile internet. I am talking about the possibilities for existing and new companies to have a new channel for selling content and services to consumers, and about a company which, from one day to the next, decides to pull the plug on the infrastructure that made this possible.”

Later, the long post, even alleges “dirty tricks” on Vodafone’s part.

Passani claims: “Vodafone UK has implicitly cut out hundreds of companies from the mobile web value chain. This is unacceptable.”

However, a Vodafone UK spokesman told me today: “It’s important to point out that we have fixed the majority of services which had experienced hitches, and have been ironing out any problems. Vodafone’s mobile web service has been designed to offer an experience as close as possible to surfing the Web on a PC, and is designed for ease of use and speed.”

In response to claims that Vodafone was hindering the development of third-party services by insisting on a ‘white-list’ of mobile sites able to work its network, Vodafone’s spokesman said: “We’re not acting as a block. Our key aim is to offer a similar experience on the mobile Web as the PC-based Web. In doing that there is a white list which people an apply for. We’re really quite open on all this – so we’re inviting people on Betavine to contribute to the debate. We’re engaging in a two way dialogue with developers to encourage lively debate and understanding.”

The row comes down to the fundamentals behind the emergence of the mobile web, and threatens to overshadow Vodafone’s recent attempts via programmes like Betavine to engage with outside developers, with the argument breaking out on Betavine’s own messageboards.

When a mobile device requests a page from a mobile site, it sends a message made up of a list of headers which say things like “I am a Nokia 6288″ or “I support MP3 ringtones” and so on. This information is essential for third-party content providers to send the right content to the device. But developers can only send the right information if the “User-Agent header” and, to a lesser extent, the “UAProf header” are available.

This is fundamental not just to the mobile Internet but to the Internet as a whole. All HTTP clients (web browsers and mobile phones) have historically sent this kind of information, known as unique User-Agent (UA) strings. Remember those days when all you saw was “This site is optimised for Internet Explorer, please download now”? Imagine if you got that every time you went to a site on your mobile phone?

The UA string was adopted by mobile operators when Internet protocols began to be incorporated into mobiles, thus 99.99% of the devices out there have unique UA strings which can be associated with the brand, model etc.

However, this last Summer gone Passani – who is based in Italy but deals frequently with UK developers – says he began to notice that Vodafone was stripping these UA strings out. He put this down to some kind of experimentation.

But the disappearance of the UA strings continued.

Eventually it turned out that Vodafone was marketing a new service which would serve web sites to normal feature phones. There is no suggestion that this is not a legitimate service offering.

Launching this new service in partnership with Novarra, Vodafone claimed that 96 per cent of the operator’s currently available handsets – about 150 models – would benefit, compressing sites to a tenth of their original size, lowering data usage and increasing download speeds for customers.

However, in order to do this – Passani claims – Vodafone started to intercept HTTP requests coming from mobiles which were on their way to a third-party content provider. Vodafone was in fact using a reformatting-proxy supplied by Novarra to sit between the mobile client and any web server. This proxy is designed to make a normal web site look acceptable on a mobile web browser, although usually with limited success, according to mobile industry consensus.

But instead of flagging this with end-customers, Vodafone has offered it as a default. So the knock-on effect has been to limit the ability for the average customer to legitimately access many third-party sites tailored specifically for mobile phones.

It is possible for mobile startups to get onto Vodafone’s new “white-list” program, to try and avoid this obstacle.

However it means waiting for Vodafone to approve the service. This means Vodafone has an effective veto on any mobile site being accessed via its network, something most normal PC-based ISPs are not able to achieve.

Backers of Passani’s position include Richard Spenser, CEO of Bluetrail, who told Techcrunch UK in a phone interview: “It comes down to the foundation of the Web. For years sites have said they work with this browser or that browser. That was done on the back of the user agent string. In the mobile web many developers are depending on the ID string being unmangled, so that punter doesn’t have to do anything.”

He says it’s entirely possible that Vodafone has not acted in an intentionally malicious manner, but merely forgotten about smaller developers in this action: “Most sites aren’t optimised for mobile, but transcoded for mobile browsers. It’s possible they let the big partners know but not smaller startups. Vodafone may have done this unintentionally.”

He says: “I find it hard to believe that they are trying to put us out of business. But it’s probably just clumsy arrogance, ignoring smaller players. But I know startups who are basing heir whole business model on the ID string.”

However, another source told me: “Vodafone knew enough abut the results of their actions to give a heads up to key partners, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Their actions break the mobile web. They must know that, and now they need to fix it.”

Christophe Lassus, CEO of Flirtymob, told me via IM: “There is no technical reason to remove the user-agent string. They could have exactly the same system but let the user agent string go through. Therefore, they have a hidden reason [which is] hampering and setting hurdles on the competition. I had started a TV compaign at the beginning of summer, just before they put their new system live, without announcement. I have lost money and am really upset.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that very few Vodafone customers will be aware of what’s going on. In most cases, it’s fair to assume that they will simply blame the third party site for not working properly on their handset, not realising that it is Vodafone’s changes to their network which is causing the problem.

Signatories to Passani’s post include David Harper, Founder, Winksite who says: “Vodafone’s actions thwart the efforts of companies in the mobile ecosystem who set out to provide a customized mobile presentation of their services, hurt these companies financially, and is counter to the advancements facilitated by groups such as the W3C and dotMobi.”

Nigel Choi, Software Engineer, AdMob, says: “Having years of experience developing mobile web content, I’ve seen lots of abuses and screw-ups by carriers. But none so egregious as what Vodafone and Novarra is doing to the User-Agent HTTP header. Not only are they breaking the HTTP standard, but they are at the same time influencing W3C to make their practice a Standards Recommendation… Unless they realize their mistakes and change, we have no choice but to call it an anti-competitive practice…. Net Neutrality is completely destroyed in this. Imagine the massive public outcry if this were done by a broadband internet provider.”

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