Industry opinion is still srongly divided on the matter
Mobile is a business full of powerful players, often with robust personal agendas and a strong desire to get their own way. Occasionally a row breaks out. But few can match the heat generated when Vodafone and Novarra introduced internet transcoding two years ago. The blogosphere was aflame. Petitions were signed.
So what exactly did Vodafone do and why do some people hate transcoding so much?
Basically, transcoding uses server-sided technology to re-configure full HTML internet sites for handheld devices. In theory this makes every website easy to navigate on a phone, and improves the browsing experience for users. It also means that operators can sell a vision of ‘bringing the internet to mobile’ in their consumer-facing marketing.
But the danger is that in the process of transforming full websites, the system also re-configures carefully assembled mobile pages. This can ruin nicely designed sites and even remove advertising banners. Which is precisely what happened with Vodafone in 2007. There was uproar. Developers organised a loud protest.
Two years on, the transcoding conflict has disappeared. But only because the sector snapped into action and re-christened transcoding as ‘web transformation’. A bit like the Winscale nuclear plant being re-named Sellafield. Problem solved.
Not for everyone though. Take Rich Holdsworth, CTO of Wapple. Given that Wapple specialises in creating made-for-mobile sites, he’s not enamoured of the practice, whatever anyone chooses to call it. “Transcoding is a load of rubbish. It should be banned,” he says. Cripes.
Other developers are more conciliatory. Luca Passani, leader of the Voda protests, has said: “The large majority of mobile developers, including me, are not against transcoding as a general idea. They are against aggressively-tuned transcoding, which breaks carefully-tuned, mobile-optimised sites. A good transcoder should be able to detect the presence of a mobile-optimised site and pull itself out of the way immediately and completely.”
His appeal has worked, and many transcoding firms have introduced protective measures. InfoGin was the first to sign up to a ‘manifesto for responsible reformatting’, promising its ‘Intelligent Mobile Platform’ technology would ensure sites are requested with the original device’s user agent, so that they will display
the mobile version instead of the web version.
Eran Wyler, CEO of InfoGin, disputes that its technology is about transcoding anyway. He sees it more as an enabling technology for understanding the visual aspect of the content.
“Our technology automatically prioritises these elements, knowing how to lay out the page and thus deliver web content in a user friendly way, adapted to best fit the mobile screen and optimised according to the attributes and capabilities of each device,” he says. Infogin’s customers now include Si.mobil, KPN, Cellcom, and AOL, among others.
In the intervening years since the Vodafone squabble, smartphones like the iPhone – with large screens and desktop browsers like Safari – have emerged. And so too has the belief that mobile sites are redundant on these handsets. Wyler disputes this.
He adds: “Safari also has limited flash capabilities, making it impossible to view web pages packed with rich Flash content. Some of the web page scripts don’t run as well – either an error message is shown, or the page is not loaded at all.”
Netbiscuits, a developer of mobile sites, expresses similar reservations about the iPhone browsing experience, albeit from a different angle. Lars Hartkopf, head of marketing at Netbiscuits, says: “The iPhone is great: it has really boosted the mobile web. But it makes some people believe they won’t need a website tailored for mobile. That’s wrong. PC website layouts, navigaton and click flows are generally too complex for mobile usage. You need a solution that is tailored for mobile and based on a software platform that adapts your website to all mobile devices worldwide on the fly.”
Hartkopf refers here to the problem that underlies the need for mobile sites and/or transcoding in the first place: device fragmentation. The vast number of handsets means that content providers need databases in order to tweak their site builds.
Norway’s Mobile Phone Wizards, the creator of DetectRight, is addressing this with a database that holds up to 200 data points for more than 10,000 devices, plus a handset data search engine and an API for automatic device detection.
Njal Wilberg, CEO of Mobile Phone Wizards, says the API is what sets DetectRight apart from other database vendors: “It’s one thing knowing about different handset properties, but some operators remove functionality from a device, so there’s still the potential to serve up content wrongly. This is why you need more than just a database, you need to detect devices too.”
There’s little sign of transcoding – or the disagreement around it – disappearing. Infogin and Openwave keep adding new customers, while Novarra is targeting emerging markets and expects to announce Asic Pac deals soon. Additionally, ‘generalist’ data services companies like Bytemobile are muscling in on the specialists with their own transcoding platforms.
Randy Cavaiani, VP of marketing and business development at Novarra, believes operators cannot afford to ignore transcoding. He says: “They face a looming problem of network payload as demands on their networks increase. Transcoding can help them ease this, while improving navigation and maintaining their brand presence.”
He won’t convince everyone. Let’s leave the last word on this debate to the ever-colourful Rich Holdsworth: “Computers are really bad at recognising patterns. The idea that automation can convert a site effectively is ridiculous. But occasionally transcoding does work in our favour. Sometimes we show customers transcoded sites, and they’re so bad, they employ us to build a mobile site for them.”
WHAT ABOUT VIDEO?
It’s not just sites that need to be modified for mobile. Yospace’s Dave Springall explains his firm’s approach to re-formatting video...
"We created our video transcoding platform when we were looking for a way to inject advertising, device detection and streaming on our own video service, EyeVibe. We soon realised we had to build it ourselves.
"The resulting ‘Yospace Content Delivery System’ combines a video asset repository and storefront with media processing and streaming. Eventually we started offering it to third parties.
"The main problem with transcoding (of websites) is that it perpetuates the idea that people use mobile the way they use the PC. They don’t. We have to move beyond thinking about technological differences between the channels and think more about usage.
"This underlies our approach to re-formatting video for mobile. We always ask our clients to consider navigation very carefully, to ensure that videos are maximum of two minutes in length and keep text to a minimum. We find that most web video works well on mobile as it’s generally short form already.
"We can transcode video for thousands of devices, and we also help partners to monetise their content as well as deliver a good user experience. We can splice in ads dynamically, for example. It’s something we’re doing for Reuters, Daily Telegraph and others. We can also offer distribution through Eyevibe. Not many services companies can offer an instant audience. We can."