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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  • Andre van den Heever

    Good article Mike

    I think you hit the nail on the head and have got good quotes and relevant stories from both sides …

    Here’s my experience:

    The company I work for is US based … but my wife works for a UK company which is also responsible for some parts of the Vodafone portal. So she told me that something like this was coming along as they had received a notification about the changes from them and that their devs had to do some work to get their services inline with the changes before they went live.

    Any how … I kinda forgot about it when suddenly one day (while we’re trying to demo our products to a client) – we start getting the Vodafone branded red bars all over our mobile site – which is a provisioning site for our mobile application we sell. Next thing I know it also trying to download a windows cab file onto a Nokia device … so I go check the logs and see hey … “where’s my phones useragent?”

    Then I thought I better check it against my wurlf based test site and I get the same thing … red advertising bars and the same mozilla –linux based useragent … tried it on Orange using the same device and it worked as per normal.

    And then I searched around online and found the Betavine site … I was the 3rd person to post something on their forum about this issue. http://www.vodafonebetavine.net/web/guest/forums/message_boards/message/446

    It’s been almost a month now and I’m still not on the whitelist … and by God I’m not going to go make all those silly changes they want you to make … if I had to tell our head office in the US about this they’d laugh.

    I explained on the forum that our mobile service doesn’t even serv pages for normal mobile browsers – it’s a client/server application in our own custom markup … and that they are messing with it!

    That’s about it … I’ve said my say and lot’s of others have too … Lets see if they can dig their way out of their hole they have made.


  • http://harper.wirelessink.com/?p=134 David Harper’s Different Things » Blog Archive » Vodafone UK is Clearly Wrong - The User-Agent String Issue

    […] UPDATE: Mike Butcher over at Techcrunch UK has also picked up on the story: http://uk.techcrunch.com/2007/09/21/vodafone-in-mobile-web-storm/ […]

  • http://builtbydave.co.uk/ David Stone

    I was already planning to leave Vodafone, I already had multiple reasons, it seems Vodafone keep giving myself and other customers more reasons to leave…

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    This is an industry that badly needs some standards

    Its extraordinary as the lesson of the Web is that global, open works and closed doesn’t. Ditto having a healthy developer community.

  • http://www.ninetyten.com Justin Davies

    Just replicating my post to MoMo here to aid discussion….

    Just to add another rant to the argument…

    I think Luca’s comments about Vodafone are wholly justified. I can see Vodafone’s point that they are fixing “issues” with existing sites, but they seem to be overlooking the overwhelming increase in new mobile innovation that starts off on the right foot.

    Most mobile startups that are working in the real world (yes Vodafone, the real world is outside of your network), which means that the startups take it upon themselves to resolve rendering issues, device identification etc., and they do a much better job than the people who hold control of the industry at the moment.

    I know this is a very spongy point of view, but the Internet was successful because of standardisation.
    A single entity cannot control a widely dispersed network that is inherently open in nature. Microsoft is finally realising that on the Internet, and we do not need to see it happen again with a pipe provider.

    Leave the Mobile Internet open, and let the people who’s businesses rely on the quirks to solve the problems themselves.

    We managed it on the Internet, we can manage it on the Mobile Internet too.

  • http://suburbia.org.uk Rick Curran

    Good job Vodafone didn’t get the iPhone in the UK then! Perhaps this had something to do with it.

  • JamesPage

    Surely vodafone are breaking copyright law.

    Vodafone are using a proxy.. A proxy to do its job need to make a copy of the content, and then modify the content to pass it on to the client (mobile).

    European law only allows copying by a proxy for performance reasons. There is no fair use exception for this sort of thing. As Passani points out Vodafone proxy in the middle is in fact hindering performance. Has Vodafone got permission from all the content providers that it can modify there content?


  • http://segala.com/blog Paul Walsh

    @Alan, how can you talk about standards for mobile Web without talking about the W3C Mobile Web Initiative which is responsible for creating new guidelines to help developers to create mobile friendly Web sites and an alternative/updated language? The W3C is after all, the consortium responsible for creating standards for the Web, such as HTML and SMIL.


    @Justin, Luca is an expert in WAP with little to no appreciation for the Web, i.e. Mobile Web (not WAP)


    I did put in a trackback but it’s not showing up – hence my URL

  • http://www.passani.it/gap/ Luca Passani

    Hi guys. Thank you for the article and thank you for the support in the comment section.
    Vodafone had some default answers ready to blow some smoke in the eyes of the non-techie, which IMO tells us that they are not as naive as they would like us to believe. Unfortunately,what they are trying to do is really seriously wrong.

    The point is whether your average developer can pull together a mobile website using the technologies available on the net and legitimately expect that someone with a mobile phone somewhere will be able to access it. Vodafone has taken this possibility away from its customers.
    The Vodafone approach breaks basic interaction models. And it breaks it
    in a very dangerous way. It opens the gates to what I would call
    “heuristics wars”, with the operator heuristics trying to screw CSPs’
    heuristics and the other way around. A whole huge freaking mess. The web
    would have been killed in the cradle if the same had happened in 1994. Thank heaven, there were not enough interest in the field at the time and web technology got a chance to establish and solidify to a greater extent.

    Vodafone, come to your senses!


  • http://www.thisismobility.com/blog/?p=386 Mike Rowehl: This is Mobility » Blog Archive » Vodafone and the Mobile Web

    […] Vodafone v. Mobile Web fight continues to rage on. This time with Techcrunch UK picking up the thread from Luca, and with Vodafone continuing to deny the fact that there could ever be anything wrong with what […]

  • Jo Rabin

    In your quote from Nigel Choi he intimates that Vodafone is excercising improper influence in the work of the W3C Best Practices Working Group. As co-chair of the group Nigel refers to and co-editor of the relevant documents I want to make it clear that this is completely unfounded in the facts.

    The work referred to is carried out in a Task Force which works in public. Its minutes and publications are open to public inspection.


  • http://www.littlespringsdesign.com/blog/2007/09/21/transcoding-vs-mobile-design/ Little Springs Design » transcoding vs. mobile design

    […] when Vodafone and Novarra stripped out the user agent strings, sites suddenly stopped working well. Some stopped working at all.  This is not a good thing. […]

  • http://www.passani.it/gap/ Luca Passani

    @Paul Walsh

    Paul, I understand the mobile web much better than you do. Now I’ll jump onto your blog and set the record straight about a few things you are getting wrong (as usual).


  • http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor/2007/09/21/links-for-2007-09-21/ James Governor’s Monkchips » links for 2007-09-21

    […] TechCrunch UK » Blog Archive » Vodafone in mobile web storm A bit of evil from our friends at Vodafone, or just an attempt to improve Qos? (tags: Vodafone evil) […]

  • http://winksite.com David Harper

    Getting back to the issue without distractions (@ Paul) …

    The User-Agent String is essential device identification information that developers and content providers use to deliver mobile-optimized sites OR device-optimized content/services.

    Vodafone UK is striping out this User-Agent String.

    The issue is not with the technology that can translate sites designed for PCs but rather that Vodafone doesn’t need to hijack the User-Agent String and break the mobile Web for countless content providers and subscribers in order to support that capability.

    Think about it…

    …if a broadband pipe/ISP unilaterally did this there would be hell to pay.

    Unfortunately, the mobile Web is still confusing enough that most people are not clear of the implications of Vodafone’s actions.


    …if you notice many of us losing our temper, making impassioned speeches, or otherwise making some noise – please consider this.

    Our home is under attack.

    What Vodafone has done here is really bad and now they need to fix it.

    David Harper
    Founder, Winksite

  • http://www.mobileresearch.com David Adams

    This is so bad in so many ways. By stripping out the User Agent header, Vodafone is not just removing the ability of the site owners and application developers to do device detection for websites, but also for virtually all downloable content and applications. On mobile phones, the browser is the subscribers interface to mobile content such as wallpaper, ringtones, videos, audio, etc. , as well as the mechanism for downloading mobile applications and initiating audio and video streams. Without the ability to do device detection, will have to resort to providing lowest common denominator content, asking for subscribers to choose their phone (which never worked well the first time around), or sending Vodafone customers to a different landing page where they alone can experience a sub-par experience. Is this really how Vodafone wants to compete for subscribers?

    David Adams
    CEO, Mobile Research

  • http://www.smoothplanet.com/hiding-user-agent-vodafone-sucks/464/ Smoothplanet » Blog Archive » Hiding user-agent, Vodafone sucks!

    […] links: Techcrunch UK: Vodafone in mobile web storm Andrea Trasatti: Is it good to hide the user-agent in mobile? Vodafone Betavine Permalink | […]

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    @ Paul – my original post was a high level summary of the need for the industry as a whole to cleave towards standards in the end to end mobile multimedia delivery chain, and the risks of not achieving them. As it was a blog post and not an essay paper, I deliberately avoided diving into specific details, as past experience is that opens the door to nitpicking rather than engaging with the overall strategic question.

    However I have now added a postscript noting the major standards bodies active in the space.

    Going big picture again – from any point of view, the unilateral action against a de facto practice, by one operator in one country, is not helpful – it just adds cost and hassle at the developer end and reduces choice at the customer end. That cannot help the development of the industry overall, but seems – sadly – to be endemic in Planet Mobile, standards bodies or no.

  • Ron Mandel

    Back in the late 90’s when Openwave was still Phone.com I had a fight with
    engineering because they summarily changed the user-agent string without consulting or telling anyone. They changed it back once they understood the value that it hold for the developer community. I’m not sure if Vodafone was malicious or just short sited, but either way, removing UA information is just straight up the wrong thing to do. How else can you explain that even IE today still includes ‘Mozilla’ in the user-agent?

  • http://www.targetize.com Ran Rubinstein

    What about sites that are ad-sponsored? Can Vodafone move the ads to the end of the page or even a second page just because Novarra’s UI algorithm decides they are less important than the content?
    What about images that contain text? Will they be reduced, making the text unreadable?

    Google are doing transcoding in their web search for mobile – with two major differences:
    1. Google does NOT modify mobile web sites brought up by their ‘mobile web’ search results.
    2. Google puts a link to the original site at the end (I think this is just to satisfy the lawyers :) )

    A reasonable alternative would be to have sites opt-in to the Novarra service – that’s what whitelisting means. Vodafone is strong enough so that sites will flock to it and register for their service. They can look at their logs and see which sites were requested by their users, and then contact those sites and ASK PERMISSION to transcode them.

  • http://www.targetize.com Ran Rubinstein

    After reading into Vodafone’s documentation, I’ve come to a conclusion that the concerns I expressed in my previous post about content modification are exaggerated. Mobile websites that are standards compliant and have the correct DOCTYPE tags and content-types of xhtml will not be modified, similarly to Google’s behaviour.
    Still taking away the user agent (even if they put it in a yet-non-standard header) will cause mobile web developers unnecessary work and branching of their detection algorithms, whose sole purpose is to give a better experience and content matching.
    Mobile-specific sites are important. The mobile context is indeed different than the web context.

  • http://winksite.com David Harper

    @ Ran.

    “Mobile websites that are standards compliant and have the correct DOCTYPE tags and content-types of XHTML will not be modified, similarly to Google’s behaviour.”

    This is not correct. You did not originally exaggerate Let me explain…

    It is only true when a standards compliant site with the correct DOCTYPE tags and content-types of xhtml is accessed DIRECTLY, such as wap.yourdomain.com, yourdomain.mobi etc.

    In the case of many mobile sites (including content downloads or java Apps being distributed via mobile) AND Brands, visitors are advised to go to a single URL ( http://www.winksite.com) for example – at which point the mobile site or service redirects the subscriber (based on the USER-AGENT string) to the correct version templates, content, or Java download.

    By intercepting and removing the USER-AGENT STRING we (meaning developers and content providers, not Vodafone) CAN NOT pass the subscriber to the correct set of standards-compliant templates with correct DOCTYPE tags and content-types of xhtml (or otherwise i.e. wap, or imode.)

    Vodafone is making an incorrect assumption at that initial URL.

    It is for this reason the Vodafone implementation “breaks” the Mobile Web.

    In my case I have a responsibility to the 25Kplus publishers who trust their mobile sites to Winksite’s care to do everything I can to see that their content make it through to their audience without being bastardized by “adaptation engines”.

    I do not take issue with the technology that can translate sites designed for PCs (even as poorly as they do so) but Vodafone does not need to block the USER-STRING AGENT in order to support that capability.

    Short-term Vodafone needs to fix this.

    Long-term what is needed is a standard tag that operators, search engines, and transcoding services universally respect so those so tag can pass through the pipe untouched.

    …you know – just the broadband Internet operates everyday.

    David Harper
    Founder, Winksite

  • http://winksite.com David Harper

    …you know – just like the broadband Internet operates everyday.

  • http://wapple.net Rich Holdsworth, CTO Wapple.net

    This is bad. Very bad.

    The whole idea of Vodafone hijacking the experience a customer can have on a legitimate mobile internet site is downright deplorable.

    However, as for our services, we’re currently making do with the whitelist – because it’s the only option we have.

    But let’s think a moment about their reasoning: They want to make the whole internet accessible through a mobile device.

    Hang on, maybe that’s even worse…? The experience of browsing an internet site through the Novarra transcoding is poor beyond belief. The automated process of repurposing content and structure renders the site poorly and completely unusable.

    My biggest concern here is that the end customer is going to find the whole experience so poor that they will turn their back on the mobile internet in its entirety.

    Simply transcoding a website does not address the fundamental issue of WHAT users expect from a mobile internet site and WHAT they want to find when they are browsing.

    Take Sky.com for example. The only reason that I would ever want to browse their on my mobile device is to see what’s on the TV tonight. The transcoded version makes this impossible. Instead I find myself with pages and pages of rubbish – easily avoided with a mouse a pointer but on a mobile device just pages and pages of barriers to the content that I really want.

    I wrote about this some time ago:


    I also emailed everyone I could at Vodafone UK. The response was unsurprising and characteristic of the company Luca describes above.

    So, in summary, sure, this is a BAD thing for us. But ultimately we can get round it if we jump through the right hoops. The end consumer CAN’T avoid it – and this poor experience will only serve to drive customers away. From us all.

    Rich Holdsworth

  • http://segala.com/blog Paul Walsh

    @alan p – you don’t have to write an essay in order to reference the most important standards for mobile Web.

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