Saturday, 29 September 2007

Mobile Camp London: Vodafone Transcoding

Terence Eden, Deputy Production Manager - Portal Content Management @ Vodafone
Terence did a reasonable job of explaining Vodafone's position and of apologising for mucking up the user agent header. There weren't too many rabid developers in the audience so he got quite an easy ride...
why transcode?
popular website e.g. slashdot -- very big to download (esp. if you're not on unlimited data) and hard to navigate
instead, do transcoding:
• cut down file size
• reformat the page to make it long and thin
• starts the user on the right bit of the page (knock out the navigational part and get to the meat - don't waste time & money downloading it)
My thoughts: On a Nokia N95 (the first demo device), the Nokia WebKit browser can zoom in and out of the non-transcoded page and dive straight into the bits that interest you. The transcoding saves you some bandwidth and some time, but you lose context and familiarity.
• Opera Mini does a very good job of dealing with the whole site, with its mix of transcoding and clever browser functionality: you get to see the whole context when you first get to the page (as zoomed out), but the text columns are made to fit the device width when you zoom in.
also works on Nokia 6230i
• wouldn't be able to download the slashdot page at all
My thoughts: but is still almost completely unusable on the Nokia 6230i -- only four lines of text on the screen gives you no context at all. Even if you know exactly where to get to on the page, you're still stuffed 'cos the transcoder mucks around with the ordering!
Supposedly, the first time you go to an off-portal site, you get offered a choice of whether you want the full version or the transcoded version.
You also get a navigation bar at the top and bottom of every transcoded page. The top one allows you to skip around the separate pages created by the transcoder; the bottom one allows you to go to the raw site without transcoding.
examples:
If a customer enters "www.facebook.com" into their phone, which site do they want to go to? the mobile one or the full website?
Maybe. What if they enter facebook.com? Shouldn't that decision be up to the people who run the site?
Another example: british airways automatically redirect mobile browsers to their wap site, wap.ba.com. However, this displays the message "BA no longer provide a WAP site" and will not let you try to get at the main web site even if you have a fancy phone with a powerful browser... Vodafone customers then complain to Vodafone, saying "Why have you broken the BA site?"
• Surely this is a situation where Vodafone should use its muscle to knock BAs head against the wall, or else to write a specific rule in their transcoder...
how does it figure out which bit to go where?
• transcoder guesses using names of DIVs + formatting hints
• also there's cheating: transcoder can be given hard-coded rules for specific sites (did this with bebo.com)
customer research:
• most people don't know how to open a URL on their phone, so offer them a form to go to one
also have a service called follow-me where you can add URLs to vodafone live website and have them appear on your mobile
• people want my websites on my phone
• the stats show that web usage has gone up
user agent woes (why change it?)
• decision was made to change user agent for any site that gets transcoded
• because there are more sites that say "you're not IE, you can't have anything" than there are mobile-specific sites
• currently have to send Vodafone an email if you want the transcoder to leave your site alone
• on a personal level that's not a good way to interact with website developers
• on a professional level, we're evaluating the options
• Question: isn't it a paradox, that you support the sites that say "bog off you're not a web browser", and penalise the sites that are making money and doing good mobile work?
• Terence gets down on his knees and promises that he will never hide the user agent again :-)

1 comment:

Terry Eden said...

Glad you enjoyed my talk. My knees are still aching!

You can catch up with the latest discussions at Betavine - http://www.vodafonebetavine.net/web/guest/forums/message_boards/category/182

Terence